Emotional intelligence can be a double edged sword, a new study has found — while it can attune you to the feelings of those around you, helping you interact with them better, it can also make you more predisposed to risk, the team reports.

Image credits Ryan McGuire.

We all know that having good social wits — emotional intelligence — is a really big boost for all your social endeavors. But does it only bring advantages to the table, or are there drawbacks to be had as well? To find out, psychologists Myriam Bechtoldt and Vanessa Schneider of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany assessed 166 male students’ levels of emotional intelligence by asking them a series of questions to assess. For example, the participants were asked to look at photographs of faces and then estimate what emotions they were conveying, and to what degrees.

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The same students then had to hold a mock job interview in front of judges who displayed stern facial expressions. To asses their levels of stress, the team measured cortisol (stress hormone) concentrations in the participants’ saliva before and after the talk. Students who rated higher on the emotional intelligence scale in the photo trial showed greater levels of cortisol during the second experiment and took longer to drop down to baseline levels.

Just like too much of a good thing can turn toxic, the findings suggest that some people simply could be too emotionally intelligent for their own good. By tuning in to others’ emotions so accurately, they become highly sensitive to their effects, which can put them under a lot of stress. Some sensitive individuals may even assume responsibility for other people’s sadness or anger, which ultimately stresses them out, Bechtoldt adds.

The study remains limited in sample size, age distribution, and in only studying male participants — further research is needed to see if this relation between emotional intelligence and stress plays out differently in women, different age groups, or people with other educational backgrounds. But it does illustrate some pitfalls of highly emotionally intelligent people — and why learning to cope with emotions is a crucial skill for them.

The full paper “Predicting stress from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings: Emotional intelligence and testosterone jointly predict cortisol reactivity” has been published in the journal Emotion.