Over the past few months, I’ve been gathering bits and pieces of what I’m calling The Type O Theory of Emotional Intelligence (and Love). The long and short of it is that emotional intelligence (EI) spreads through social networks in specific ways, and there are interesting and potentially profound conclusions that follow from considering how this happens.
Before I dive in to the theory itself, let’s start with The Wire, widely hailed as one of the best TV shows ever made. If you are anything like me, provided you’ve seen the show, you’ll give it a hearty recommendation when you find out that someone hasn’t seen it. The Wire spreads through social networks like a virus, or a meme, just like everything that gets recommended by word-of-mouth or reposted on facebook.
But The Wire is a discrete, semi-tangible “thing.” Emotional Intelligence is an abstract concept that describes something not easily put into words regarding a person’s behavior. Depending on your definition, it might include how they might make you feel or the “vibe” they give off. But this raises a question: can “vibes” transfer from person to person like The Wire?
How Emotional Intelligence Spreads Through Social Networks
I have found several reasons to think that relating to and interacting with highly emotionally intelligent people contributes your level of emotional intelligence. These include:
(1) The things they will notice and point out will likely stem from their sensitivity towards their feelings and their reactions to emotion-laden content. These attentional cues can teach you to notice similar things. If you see a film with a high-EI person, or listen to the right piece of music, they will likely make observations about aspects of the work that may initially seem subtle to you.
Specific examples are easy enough to imagine when thinking about how a high EI person might talk about interpersonal interactions (either in real life or on film, and so on). For a different example, the second verse from the Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love goes:
“…I believe in you
You know the door to my very soul
You’re the light in my deepest, darkest hour
You’re my savior when I fall
And you may not think I care for you
When you know down inside that I really do
And it’s me you need to show / How deep is your love…”
In the context of the whole song, the bolded lines go by pretty quickly. Most people don’t give them too much thought. But if you happen to be talking with a high-EI person about this song they will likely point out that the bolded lines are from the point of view of an unintentionally manipulative person.
(2) Relatedly, they can help you learn what it is like to not be pressured in a relationship. (In fact, they might use the aforementioned Bee Gees song as an illustration, though this will likely pale in comparison to them avoiding pushing you to behave in certain ways.) If you haven’t been exposed to not being convinced of what you are feeling, you might not realize when you are putting pressure on other people.
(3) They’ll likely model healthy ways of processing events and making decisions. I doubt a high-EI person will complain about petty things or get annoyed at minor inconveniences. They also might show you “what to say” during situations that may strike you, and not them, as awkward.
(4) Due to their understanding of empathy, skill at it, and sensitivity towards themselves, they can help you be more sensitive towards your experience. This very often makes you better able to empathically connect with others.
(5) They’ll expose you to a type of blame-free relationship where arguments dissolve before they get started, as emotional intelligence also involves communication. 
(6) Being around a highly emotionally intelligent person can inform or update your mental model of Openness, Love as well as all of the other components of what a relationship can be.
(7) Most significantly, they can show you what being fully connected to your own emotional reality feels like. (Not denying someone else’s emotional reality can be a very subtle thing for most people.) Imagine telling a friend that you are intimidated by the person you just started dating. If they say something like ‘but you have all of these good qualities’, ‘but he/she likes you’ or ‘ maybe they’re intimidated by you,’ the person you are talking with is not connecting to your emotional reality, no matter how supportive they are. In fact, by trying to reassure you into a different emotional state, they will likely unintentionally contribute to you to being disconnected from the emotions you were trying to process.
Note that these are all implicit lessons; they happen without any party intending to teach anything. In addition, a high EI person can also explicitly teach you emotional intelligence without making you feel criticized, dumb, or ashamed.
Mechanisms of Osmosis
However, there is one catch, and it’s a Catch-22 of this whole EI transference scheme. The catch is that the receiving person has to be open enough to pick up on the lessons. Being open to growth is itself a marker of (some level of ) EI . What this means is means that EI only spreads if the difference between two people’s emotional intelligence is large enough. And this threshold gets smaller as both people move along the spectrum towards high EI. (Due to the receiver being more open.)
So either the receiving person needs to be open enough to be able to absorb what they are being shown, or the giver needs to be emotionally intelligent enough that they are able to reach the emotionally unintelligent person.
In fact, if you think about it, the only way that EI can spread is via someone who’s a) figured some things out or b) been exposed to either the behavior or structured thoughts of someone else who had high EI.
However, EI does not spread unimpeded. If it did, we all would have the emotional intelligence of the person with the highest emotional intelligence across the entire human social network. Instead It only spreads when the gap is big enough; when the “voltage” is high enough to induce the flow of EI, across whatever barriers the receiving person may be operating with.
You’ve been reading the first part of The Type O Theory of Love. Click here to read the rest.