By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–What are the keys to success in life?
Birth order? Class? Education? Professional skills? Luck?
Not doubt all these play a role.
But an increasing body of evidence suggests that our ability to use emotional information–known as emotional intelligence–is also an important factor in determining an individual’s ability to succeed.
Emotional intelligence is understood as the ability to perceive emotions in oneself and others, to use emotion to facilitate thought, to understand emotional information through our relationships with others, and to manage our own emotions.
To better understand how emotional intelligence works across cultures, including which aspects are universal and which are more linked to local factors, two researchers launched a study in 2001–and never stopped.
For Diane Wille, professor of psychology and dean of graduate studies and research at IU Southeast, and her colleague Dr. Makhinur Mamatova, associate professor of psychology at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the research project has grown and deepened across the past 17 years, and fostered a friendship across half the globe.
Their project charts and compares emotional intelligence in student cohorts at their respective universities.
Wille and Mamatova administered the tests in 2002, 2012 and 2018.
On its face, the research is a study in obvious cultural contrasts: Kyrgyzstan, a traditional Central Asian society with a strong collective mentality that had been part of the Soviet Union, and the United States with its emphasis on individualism and self-expression.
The results, published in Psychology Research and other journals, has revealed a high degree of emotional intelligence in the American cohort. In the Kyrgyz cohort, emotional intelligence was initially low but has risen steadily, and in 2012 was on a par with that of the American group.
“We didn’t expect that,” Wille said.
So what happened?
Over the course of the project, Kyrgyzstan underwent a period of upheaval, including two revolutions, democratization and an opening to the West after 80 years of Russian domination.
“Once Soviet culture ended, dramatic cultural shift scontributed to serious changes in how the new culture started to control emotional behavior,” Mamatova said.
The researchers’ surveys of young people in 2002 and 2012 provided an assessment of these cultural changes.
“We wanted to see how young adults and teenagers were similar or different, before and after experiencing the powerful influence of western culture—movies, music, internet games, technology,” Mamatova said. “These things constitute a common ground for teenagers, regardless of their cultural affiliation.”
Given its static nature, the U.S. sample functioned as a control.
“The outcomes suggest that historical factors like political change are playing a role in emotional intelligence, independent of culture,” Wille said.
The two colleagues have made ten presentations and published three papers on their research. Mamatova is currently at IU Southeast–her fourth visit–to write the latest paper to be submitted for publication.
Whereas many research projects are undone by social change, the turbulence of Kyrgyz society and transformations in technology continues to deliver new fodder for inquiry for Wille and Mamatova, who have expanded their focus to address the effects of social media and emojis on emotional intelligence.
This puts them at the forefront of their field. Their current historical examination of alexthymia, a personality trait related to the suppression of emotional experience, is the only study of its kind, according to Wille.
The success of this longitudinal study rests not only on the mind-meld between Wille and Mamatova, but also on their friendship, which began when Wille received a USAID grant to teach in Kyrgyzstan in 2001, and deepened when Mamatova visited IU Southeast in 2002, her first journey to the United States.
That trip took three days and was remarkable for another reason: A colleague traveling with Mamatova lost her billfold containing her passport, money and other valuables.
It was recovered, funds intact, which sealed Mamatova’s positive view of America. She now visits annually, to attend conferences and present research.
Homepage photo: Dr. Makhinur Mamatova and Dr. Diane Wille.