Skip to Content

Does age affect emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to our ability to understand and manage emotions—both our own and others’. It involves being aware of emotions, understanding their causes and effects, and using emotional information to guide our thinking and behavior. While some aspects of EI appear stable across the lifespan, age does seem to impact certain elements of emotional competence. Let’s explore how age may influence emotional intelligence.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

EI encompasses four main abilities:

  • Perceiving emotions – the ability to detect and decipher emotions in one’s self and others.
  • Using emotions – the ability to harness emotions to facilitate thinking and problem solving.
  • Understanding emotions – the ability to comprehend emotional language and understand relationships among emotions.
  • Managing emotions – the ability to regulate one’s own emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

High EI is associated with advantages in many domains of life, including relationships, work performance, and mental health. However, EI is not a fixed trait – our emotional skills develop throughout life.

Emotional Perception

Emotional perception involves reading emotional signals in facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Studies indicate our accuracy for emotion recognition increases from childhood to adolescence and early adulthood, as regions of the brain involved in processing emotions mature.

However, in later adulthood, these skills may decline. Older adults are generally worse at identifying negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness compared to younger adults. This “positivity effect” in older age may reflect adaptive changes in emotion regulation goals—focusing on positive over negative information for well-being.

Age Differences in Detecting Emotions

Age Group Emotion Recognition Ability
Children Less accurate at labeling facial expressions
Adolescents Increasing recognition accuracy as brain matures
Younger Adults Peak ability to detect emotions
Older Adults Declining ability, especially for negative emotions

Using Emotions

Harnessing the motivational power of emotions can enhance thinking, decision-making, and creativity. Research shows adults become better at regulating their emotions to aid cognition as they mature into midlife.

Older adults exhibit strengths in using positive emotions. Due to their focus on emotional meaning and control, they are more successful at using positive moods to improve memory and decision-making. However, they may struggle to use negative moods effectively.

Age and Leveraging Emotions

Age Ability to Apply Emotions
Young adults May lack skills to utilize emotions
Middle-aged adults Effective at regulating emotions to aid thinking
Older adults Adept at harnessing positive but not negative emotions

Understanding Emotions

Emotional understanding involves labeling emotions and recognizing their causes, meanings, and relationships. Research indicates older adults perform better on tests of emotional vocabulary and comprehension compared to young adults.

Life experience helps explain older adults’ strengths in emotional understanding. They may be more adept at seeing nuances and multiple perspectives in emotional situations. Increased cognitive and empathic maturity enables wisdom in perceiving emotion complexity.

Age and Emotional Understanding

Age Group Emotional Understanding Ability
Young adults Less advanced emotional comprehension
Middle-aged adults Increasing understanding with life experience
Older adults Peak emotional comprehension abilities

Managing Emotions

Emotion regulation refers to strategies used to manage emotional responses. This includes reappraising situations to modify reactions and using tactics to control impulses.

Research finds older adults use passive regulation strategies aimed at avoiding or preventing emotional situations. Younger adults utilize active tactics to directly change emotions as they arise. These age differences may reflect motivational shifts – older adults prioritize well-being while younger adults focus on knowledge acquisition.

Age Differences in Emotion Regulation Strategies

Age Group Emotion Regulation Strategies
Younger adults Active strategies to alter emotions
Middle-aged adults Increasing use of cognitive reappraisal
Older adults Passive strategies to avoid negative emotions


Research demonstrates there are age-related changes in some components of emotional intelligence, while other capacities remain stable or even improve throughout adulthood.

Younger adults exhibit strengths in identifying emotions, while older adults excel at understanding nuances and using positive emotions to aid cognition. Adults become more adept at applying emotions to thinking and problem-solving in middle age. Age impacts our strategies for regulating emotions as well.

However, emotional skills are not fixed. With motivation and training, people of all ages can enhance their emotional competencies through life. While development varies across domains, emotional intelligence continues to evolve as we mature.