Study Explores Emotional Intelligence In U.S. Pilots


A recently published study found significant differences in trait emotional intelligence (trait EI) in pilots compared to the general U.S. population. For the study, a control group was matched with a pilot group at a 2:1 ratio based on factors including age, gender, ethnicity and educational background. The results indicated that pilots scored consistently lower than their counterparts in global trait EI, as well as three of its four factors: well-being, emotionality and sociability. For the fourth factor, self-control, no significant differences were identified.

“Overall, the findings show that pilots tend to have lower trait EI scores, indicating less confidence and reliance on their emotional world, with all the advantages and disadvantages this might entail, since high scores are not considered universally adaptive and desirable in trait EI theory,” researchers wrote in the study. “Although exploratory, these findings highlight promising avenues for future trait EI research within the broader sector of international aviation. Such research will help practitioners identify new opportunities in pilot training and organizational culture, the better to equip pilots for aviation duty, ultimately leading to improved safety, performance, and all-around satisfaction.”

The study assessed a group of 44 pilots using the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue) and compared the results to a control group taken from a TEIQue U.S. dataset. 93 percent of the pilot participants were male, ages ranged between 24 and 67 years, and flight experience varied from 150 hours to over 5,000 hours. Participants included both rotary- and fixed-wing pilots from military and civilian aviation organizations.

The complete study, which was published in Scientific Reports, can be found at

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. I read the source article. It is obviously written for people in the field so it’s hard for a layman to follow in some areas. As I read it, we score lower on three of the four measures, but the lower score means that we are not less “emotionally intelligent”, but less emotional?

    For a profession that needs to keep their heads and do their job right up until the impact, that would seem to be a good thing. As a married man with two teenage daughters, I recognize that you are upset/sad/anxious/etc. I also see that those emotions are not making things better so I’m intelligent about emotions, and I keep them locked in a box in a dark room covered in cobwebs like I’m supposed to. I’m wondering why you are so emotional and how you’ll survive in the world.

    This reminds me of the TeD talk where the scientist discovered a test for psychosis that worked perfectly except for some reason he scored as a psychopath himself. Upon further research with his family and friends, it turned out he was a psychopath. He never knew.

    • As I read it, not necessarily “less emotional”, but rather less perceptive to emotions. I believe there have been similar findings for race car drivers and others in highly-dynamic environments.

      Obviously being less reactive to emotions (both from ourselves and others) has helpful benefits in stressful situations. But being perceptive to others’ emotions could also be useful; in particular, for flight instructors and mentor captains.

      It’s well-known that learning is degraded under stress, so being able to better perceive when others are under emotional stress can be helpful to better adjust the training in those situations to be more effective. And that doesn’t mean coddling the student/mentee; it might just mean backing off a bit on the overall stress level where possible, such as ending a training flight early due to winds/turbulence that the student isn’t yet ready for, or taking the controls to give them a short breather.

  2. I have an idea: why not spend hard-earned grant money – not hard-earned by the researchers, but hard-earned by somebody – on something other than generating more psychobabble? How about, oh, modernizing aircraft engines beyond 1950s technology, or doing some real research on whether human-caused “global cooling,” er – “global warming,” er – “climate change” is a Thing or a fantasy, or whether getting rid of nitrogen-based fertilizers and thereby starving much of the world’s human population makes any sense in an atmosphere that is 80 percent nitrogen. I’m sure those would be a better use of scarce resources than whether pilots appropriately cry in their beer.

    • Please keep in mind that by far “human factors” are the leading cause of GA accidents. GA accidents are a major issue. Understanding pilots is helpful for formulating training and regulations that are less intrusive and more effective.

      • Not a bad thought, but at some point don’t you have to look at what we are doing and think maybe it’s time to try something different? I’m constantly confused by the ability of humans to keep doing the same things expecting better results.

        With a half century of near stand still in piston aircraft engines, limited improvement in the owner pilot, and a major loss in the percentage of humans desiring to fly themselves around, perhaps a bit of upgrade under the cowling should be a priority?

        We have improved the airframe and the panel both to good effect in my opinion.

        • If the potential of electric aircraft could be realized, the resulting fault tolerance would eliminate most engine failure accidents. The current technology is at a stage of development similar to the early days of aviation, with a similar range of good to silly ideas. Just as R&D propelled aviation to practicality, I expect R&D to eventually result in practical electric aircraft. Are they ready for prime time now? Of course not. But incremental step-wise improvements in battery and other technology continue.

  3. I’m shocked, shocked I say! Is there a reason there is a pilot type stereotype among people? And I thought we were all mostly on the edge of the autism spectrum.

  4. This article doesn’t remotely pass the “so what” test. Puking up information with out explaining what it means is not useful. Reminds me so much of what new intelligence analyst would present only to be summarily sent back for more mentoring and work.

  5. Well, my son is a psychoanalyst and my daughter-in-law is a professor of psychology (my son married up). I’ve sent this to them to see if this explains who I am and why I am that way (wonderful father and father-in-law…right?). Yes, Dan, what they write is hard to understand, and sometimes Leroy it all sounds like “psychobabble” to me. But I keep working with them to try to get them down to my level.

  6. I have not read the source article. Still, I have two observations.

    First, commenters seems to want to criticize that of which they have no knowledge as “psychobabble.”

    Second, since pilots are different than non-pilots on certain measures of trait emotional intelligence, the next question is whether measures of trait emotional intelligence are associated with metrics of performance as a pilot or future undesirable incidents as a pilot. If so, then the measurements may assist in identifying different training needs among pilot as a function of such measures. The obvious place where such scrutiny of pilots might make sense is in military training.

    Of course, the devil lies in the details. For example, a sample of 44 pilots is pretty small and a big question is whether those 44 pilots are a representative sample of some larger group of pilots.

    • Or, perhaps more interestingly, does the sample of 44 pilots differ from the typical middle-aged white male?

      If the average pilot, demographically, does not match the demographics of the general population, then we should probably expect some differences. Being a “pilot” may not be causal at all, just correlated.

    • Also, how many of those 44 pilots were male vs female?

      Back in the early days of the manned space program, medical testing nearly identical to the testing that was done on the astronauts selected for the Mercury program was performed on a group of women. In some cases, those tests showed that women were superior than men, particularly in what could be called “emotional intelligence”, and which would actually make them more suitable for long-term missions.

      So there is quite a bit of interesting information that can be learned from further study. It might even lead to improvements in training that could help pilots.

  7. Folks, there is no such thing as “emotional intelligence”. Clinical psychologists assign such qualities to the various personality traits. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Developing “tests” to check for EI is, in fact, nonsense.

    • I don’t know about the semantics, but I can assure you that some people are better at handling the emotions of themselves and others with more skill. Call it what you want, but I wish I had more skill in those areas.

  8. The issue will become problematic if employees of the insurance industry and/or interventionist nonparticipants try to manufacture risks where there are none, due to nonconformity with norms which they, and nobody else, have agreed to.

  9. C’mon guys! Lets get to basics. Humans, as well as other mammals process information, both internal and external, from the lower brain centers (i.e. the emotional parts) up to the cold and rational parts (the frontal cortex). Think of math and course plotting. The problems with this are twofold. First, 40 to 60 percent of all humans have been subjected to “adverse childhood events”, that is something or other, one experience or the ongoing environment, affected how your brain was built and operates in an adverse way. Second, even if you happen to be the lucky 40 to 60 percent who had a rather ideal childhood, you still process information from the lower levels on up, that is through your lower brain centers to your higher brain centers. Emotional intelligence simply means the ability to recognize emotions and not to act on them without thinking. Translated to pilots, that means in part, pilots are less likely to freak out when things get weird. However, also translated to pilots, that means that things that should be frightening, are ignored…like taking off when the weather is lousy, or pushing on when you’re fatigued, or when the destination conditions have changed for the worse, or you act on the impulse of “let me show you this!”, or you let your cheapness prevent you from spending the large amounts of money needed to keep your aircraft in absolutely pristine condition…because your life depends on it.

  10. I wonder if whoever did this study compared irregular sleep patterns experienced by most professional pilots compared to the more regular sleep opportunities of the general population. Seems like subtle fatigue factors could affect emotional or any other kind of intelligence.

    • According to Navy personnel files, more than 80% of modern jet fighter pilots are left handed, a trait that goes along with others that make lefties more desirable in those cockpits. What is the effect of handedness on such studies and reported outcomes?

  11. Another ‘egg-head’ study. Perfect for the resume of someone like ‘The Professor’ on Gilligan’s Island. Oh, liberal academia, what are we to do with you?

    • How about stating simply “academia” rather than “liberal academia” (said a Visitor at The Hoover Institution), please.

      [All squares are comprised of rectangles (interior right angles of 90 degrees); not all rectangles are squares.] Differentiations have no political dog in the fight nor any liberal or conservative horse in the race.

  12. “The results indicated that pilots scored consistently lower than their counterparts in global trait EI, as well as three of its four factors: well-being, emotionality and sociability. For the fourth factor, self-control, no significant differences were identified.”
    It makes sense. One has to understand the social patterns in the U.S. and different cultures abroad. Yes, there is definitely differences. Now, it’s not easy to ask people to look and understand what goes on in its own eyes. Interesting article to maybe start a debate about the significance of these differences. I would suggest for those interested in undertanding more about it to read and check studies from Jordan Peterson. He is master in understanding “people’s minds’ ” : )

  13. Read pilot-oriented social media or fora, and these findings are quickly confirmed! Many pilots could use a healthy dose of self-awareness with regard to EI.

  14. Emotions have only a limited value in aviation. Logic and pragmatism rule the day. I’m a retired FAA Center Controller with previous military experience and a commercial, IFR, instructor rated pilot. We were always ‘advised’ *wink* to make control decisions, as much as possible, without no reliance on emotions. Emotions are not your friend when quick, logical, no b.s. decisions need to be made. The same applies in the cockpit. Emotional Intelligence also means knowing when NOT to be emotional.

  15. Pilots do not like to score low on a test. So my curiosity is piqued. I’ve never heard of Emotional Intelligence and I wonder what it has to do with flying airplanes but maybe it is something worth looking into. I’m glad AVWEB brought it up. Knowledge is a good thing.

    • I can tell you that the response you’ve given already demonstrates that you have more of it than various other commenters here.

    • No one is this thread has noticed the very clear disclaimer in the article ‘high scores are not necessarily considered adaptive’ in these tests and the interpretation that a lower emotional intelligence score means that pilots rely less on, and are less confident in, emotions when making decisions. In fact, the article pointed out a major strength of those who self-select to become pilots, and thus enter an environment governed by the laws of physics.
      BTW, the 93% male composition of the study population accurately reflects the percentage of the pilot population who are male. A statistic that has not changed since 1929.

  16. joseph f c.: One is never too old to learn. I could not sleep so…

    The association between emotional intelligence and decision making for pilots

    Aviation Safety, Crew Resource Management, CRM, Decision Making, Emotional Intelligence, Flight Crew, HRM, Human Factors, Human Resource Management

    Emotional Intelligence (EI) refers to the regulation, perception, and management of self and others’ emotions. EI has been used to gain insight into decision making in corporate Human Resource Management (HRM) contexts, as well as in stressful situations. The potential link between EI and decision making in HRM could have great benefit to training and management in high-consequence and safety-critical industries. This research investigated the association between EI and decision making of pilots in the aviation industry. The aim was to uncover the level of association between EI dimensions and decision making for pilots; as well as to understand the role that pilots perceive EI dimensions play in their decision making in safety-critical scenarios. One hundred and seventeen pilots completed an online survey comprised of the Wong-Law EI Scale, decision making scenarios, and open-ended questions. The mixed-method analysis of the survey data showed a correlation between individual EI dimensions and decision-making scenarios, rather than the total scores. There are potential implications for general HRM research in EI and decision making as well as practical implications for the aviation industry. Overall, it was found that there is a link between EI and decision making, specifically for scenarios that involve other cognitive functions.

    Christine Beling
    Graham Wild

  17. Emotional response in an aircraft is dangerous. Fear kills.
    Fear triggers the fight or flight response and it does effect your ability to respond physically. Your body functions change. There is a loss of blood and oxygen flow to the non essential fight or flight organs like stomach, kidneys. Some peoples bladder empties so they can flee. The eyes are effected. Your eyes loose focus on things the mind doesn’t believe are a danger. So you can only focus on the thing you believe is the threat.
    This is why training so so important. Pilots are taught to understand the aircrafts systems so when something does go wrong, they can work the problem without fear causing them to loose the ability to see everything happening and respond.
    It is believed now that pilots not experiencing full stalls and spins is creating pilots that fear them. A stall or spin isn’t something to fear, it should be understood. This way you will avoid it, and if by some weird chance you do believe there is a stall or spin you will react properly.