Emotional intelligence is a powerful tool, helping us navigate not only our own complex emotional worlds, but also those of our friends, family, colleagues and strangers.
It is vital in a wide range of professions, especially in areas with frequent or intensive social interaction such as education, healthcare or the service industry.
But what if your job mostly involves interacting with an emotionless machine?
If you’re a pilot, for example, you may need excellent concentration, memory, and situational awareness, among other attributes. But how much emotional intelligence do you need to fly a plane?
Despite the abundance of research on emotional intelligence overall, few studies have examined its role in aviation, according to a team of researchers led by Maj. Zachary Dugger, an instructor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the United States Military Academy West Point.
Hoping to shed some light on the issue, Dugger and his colleagues contacted pilots from “several airlines” in the US, eventually recruiting 44 volunteers to take a questionnaire designed to assess emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize and regulate your own emotions, as well as recognize and empathize with other people’s emotions. The term was popularized by a book of the same name in the 1990s and has since attracted increasing research interest.
There are two basic models for measuring emotional intelligence (EI): trait EI and ability EI. The new study focuses on trait EI, which the authors define as “a constellation of emotional perceptions assessed through questionnaires and rating scales.”
Many studies have already examined trait EI in a variety of contexts, the authors note, and “it has been strongly associated with behaviors that are key components of a pilot’s skill set, including leadership, mental toughness, and stress management.”
However, very little research has directly examined trait EI among pilots, they add.
The researchers cite two studies that have looked at the topic, but while those papers found trait EI to be positively associated with pilot training performance and “civilian safety behaviors,” both were limited to military pilots and neither compared the EI of the pilots with that of the pilots. public.
And since research suggests that other personality traits influence a pilot’s success — like extroversion and neuroticism, for example — Dugger and his colleagues suspect that emotional intelligence plays an underappreciated role that deserves to be explored.
The 44 pilots who volunteered for the study ranged in age from 24 to 67, with flight experience ranging from 150 to over 5,000 hours. They included both fixed-wing and rotary-wing pilots, but all had to hold a currently valid flying certificate.
For a control group, the study used 88 non-pilots from a US data set of subjects who took the TEIQue questionnaire.
The researchers matched the subjects for age, sex, ethnicity and education, letting them control for factors that have been shown to influence trait CHD.
The pilots also took the TEIQue, which measures trait EI by asking subjects to read 153 statements and rate their agreement with each. It covers the four main factors of the EI trait – well-being, emotionality, sociability and self-control – plus 15 more specific aspects.
The pilots scored “consistently lower than their counterparts” on the general trait EI, the researchers write, as well as well-being, emotionality and sociability. The study found no significant differences in self-control scores between pilots and non-pilots.
The reasons for these differences remain unclear, but the study authors have some ideas.
The factors of well-being, emotionality, and sociability relate to “the positive evaluation of one’s emotional capabilities,” they write, and when taken too far, this initially beneficial self-evaluation sometimes “bends into narcissism and hubris.”
Pilots have to be “cautious, simple and restrained in their work,” the researchers note, which could create a different mindset compared to jobs that incentivize more self-promotion. This may explain comparatively low scores among military managers, they add.
At the same time, pilots also belong to an organizational culture that often prizes the impression of invulnerability and “resistance to human frailty,” they add.
“Pilots have long been associated with a masculine culture that emphasizes aggression, competition, and performance orientation,” the researchers write.
“In practice, the pilot selection and training process can produce pilots, mostly male but also female, who fit this culture.”
The new study has some notable limitations. The sample size of 44 pilots is small, for example, and lacks diversity: The majority of pilots who participated are male (93 percent), white (91 percent), and have completed at least some college (98 percent).
Also, most of the pilots either currently serve or previously served as military aircrew members, undermining the ability of this study to transcend the military-centric focus of previous studies.
Still, this research marks an important step toward filling the information gap about emotional intelligence in pilots, the researchers say.
“Although exploratory, these findings highlight promising avenues for future trait EI research in the broader field of international aviation,” they write.
More research like this could help improve pilot training and organizational culture, they add, creating pilots who are better prepared for aviation duties and “ultimately leading to improved safety, performance and overall satisfaction.”
The study was published in Scientific Reports.