During our teen years, we experience peak levels of sensation seeking, psychologists tell us. The very same time period also includes more moments of boredom, disinhibition, thrill seeking… and delinquency. Now, a new study finds a surprising link between adolescent delinquency and a trait commonly seen as major plus when it comes to mental health. While greater emotional intelligence in teen boys went hand in hand with lower levels of misbehavior, it seemed to produce the opposite effect in teen girls.

The study suggests, the authors wrote, “that females who have higher levels of [emotional intelligence] commit more delinquent acts, a surprising and unprecedented result.”

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Straight from the horse’s mouth: “Emotional intelligence is the capacity to reason about emotions and emotional information, and of emotions to enhance thought,” said Dr. John D. Mayer, one of two social scientists who introduced the theory in 1990.

Mayer suggests people with high levels of this form of intelligence can accurately perceive emotions in others’ faces and also understand what meanings these emotions convey. They know, for instance, that angry people might be dangerous, while happy people just want to be hanging out with others. Those with “feeling smarts” also understand how to manage their own and others' emotions. To further explain his theory, Mayer also clearly states what emotional intelligence is not: it is not optimism, happiness, agreeableness, calmness, or motivation. It is also not the best predictor of success, he says in contrast to what others commonly claim.

For the study, a research team lead by Dr. Alison M. Bacon of Plymouth University, asked 96 college students, average age of 19 and a half, a series of questions to evaluate their emotional intelligence in addition to their sensation-seeking tendencies, while also noting instances of delinquent behavior during their puberty and teen years. Among these non-offender student volunteers, the delinquent behavior most often reported was truancy, followed by "rowdy" behavior, smoking pot, and not buying a ticket for public transportation. However, some sex differences existed with males generally reported higher rates of drunk driving (23 percent versus eight percent for the females), arson (13 percent versus two percent for the females), and beating someone up (19 percent versus six percent for the females).

Naturally, the research team expected participants with a high level of sensation-seeking would more fequently be delinquent, but when they mixed in participants’ emotional intelligence scores, they were in for a surprise. Among the guys, those with lower emotional intelligence scores showed a greater increase in both delinquency and sensation seeking. However, the opposite was true among the gals.

Teen girls “who showed high levels of [emotional intelligence] were more likely to report to having engaged in delinquent acts,” wrote the authors in their conclusion. Why? The researchers speculate the girls who rated high on both emotional intelligence and delinquent behaviors might be more likely to engage in “relational aggression,” such as bullying, deliberate social exclusion, or malicious gossip. Past studies have suggested, in the words of the authors, “females prefer relational aggression because it maximizes the harm inflicted while minimizing the personal danger involved.”

Source: Bacon AM, Burak H, Rann J. Sex differences in the relationship between sensation seeking, trait emotional intelligence and delinquent behavior. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychiatry. 2014.