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Context  Emotional intelligence (EI), the ability to perceive emotions in the self and others, and to understand, regulate and use such information in productive ways, is believed to be important in health care delivery for both recipients and providers of health care. There are two types of EI measure: ability and trait. Ability and trait measures differ in terms of both the definition of constructs and the methods of assessment. Ability measures conceive of EI as a capacity that spans the border between reason and feeling. Items on such a measure include showing a person a picture of a face and asking what emotion the pictured person is feeling; such items are scored by comparing the test-taker’s response to a keyed emotion. Trait measures include a very large array of non-cognitive abilities related to success, such as self-control. Items on such measures ask individuals to rate themselves on such statements as: ‘I generally know what other people are feeling.’ Items are scored by giving higher scores to greater self-assessments. We compared one of each type of test with the other for evidence of reliability, convergence and overlap with personality.

Methods  Year 1 and 2 medical students completed the Meyer–Salovey–Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT, an ability measure), the Wong and Law Emotional Intelligence Scale (WLEIS, a trait measure) and an industry standard personality test (the Neuroticism–Extroversion–Openness [NEO] test).

Results  The MSCEIT showed problems with reliability. The MSCEIT and the WLEIS did not correlate highly with one another (overall scores correlated at 0.18). The WLEIS was more highly correlated with personality scales than the MSCEIT.

Conclusions  Different tests that are supposed to measure EI do not measure the same thing. The ability measure was not correlated with personality, but the trait measure was correlated with personality.