Emotional plasticity: conditions and effects of improving emotional competence in adulthood

J Appl Psychol. 2011 Jul;96(4):827-39. doi: 10.1037/a0023047.


This study aimed to investigate (a) whether it is possible to increase emotional competence (EC) in adulthood; (b) whether this improvement results in better mental, physical, and social adjustment; (c) whether this improvement can be maintained 1 year later; and (d) whether these benefits are accompanied by a reduction in stress-hormone secretion (i.e., cortisol). One hundred and thirty-two participants were randomly assigned to an EC-enhancing intervention (in group format) or to a control group. Participants in the intervention group underwent a specifically designed 15-hr intervention targeting the 5 core emotional competencies, complemented with a 4-week e-mail follow-up. Results reveal that the level of emotional competencies increased significantly in the intervention group in contrast with the control group. This increase resulted in lower cortisol secretion, enhanced subjective and physical well-being, as well as improved quality of social and marital relationships in the intervention group. No significant change occurred in the control group. Peer reports on EC and quality of relationships confirmed these results. These data suggest that emotional competencies can be improved, with effective benefits on personal and interpersonal functioning lasting for at least 1 year. The theoretical implications of these results as well as their practical implications for the construction and the development of effective emotional competencies interventions are discussed.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Belgium
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cultural Competency / psychology*
  • Emotional Intelligence / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychological Tests
  • Psychotherapy
  • Self Report
  • Social Adjustment*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Biomarkers
  • Hydrocortisone