The Personality Analyst

How Personality and Personal Intelligence Shape Our Lives

Is Personal Intelligence Important?

People are smart in different ways—which has consequences for society.

Intelligence researchers of today recognize several broad intelligences including verbal-propositional intelligence, perceptual-organizational intelligence, speededness (thinking quickly), and memory-retrieval intelligence. Recently, I've argued that there exists a personal intelligence—an intelligence about personality—that I believe belongs among those broad mental abilities. Personal intelligence is the capacity to reason about personality as a whole—including our motives, emotions, thoughts, values, and self-control.

Why is personal intelligence important? Because we use our personal intelligence to solve problems about ourselves and about other people, including our loved ones—and what could be more important than competently resolving problems that concern the people we care about?

What Kinds of Problems Does Personal Intelligence Address?

Personal intelligence addresses questions such as who to spend time with, who to work with, and who to ask for help. When we make choices about other people, we often start by identifying patterns in their behavior. If Cory is sympathetic to others and modest, we can use our personal intelligence to deduce that he cooperates with others and is less likely to be highly emotional. If Conner is arrogant and unfriendly, we may also evaluate him as untrustworthy. When it comes time to ask a small favor of a friend, we’re more likely to choose to ask Cory than Conner.  

Or perhaps we ask a friend to go out one night and are surprised when he objects that we are pressuring him. From our own standpoint, we had no intention of placing any demands on him; we were just hoping to have his company. But were we in fact demanding? Although we hadn’t meant to pressure him, we do realize that having his company had been quite important to usand perhaps our request communicated that need more than we thought. We also draw on another memory—of an earlier friend with whom we're no longer so close, who complained that we often pressured her. We conclude that our friend might be right: we might have pushed too hard and we may need to acknowledge that to ourselves and our friend.

As the above examples suggest, personal intelligence involves the ability to draw together clues about a person, to recognize complex patterns in behavior, and to use that information to guide our choices and, ultimately, to guide our lives.

All Intelligences are Important

All broad human intelligences are of crucial use to us—it would be hard to argue for the supremacy of one intelligence over another. We are all indebted to people who have used their verbal intelligence, their perceptual-organizational intelligence, and their other intelligences to help build the world around us. The computers we use, our phones, our cars, the GPS-guided tractors that harvest our food all depend upon innovations made possible by people high in these intelligences. The people who are smartest in these areas design the logic circuits in our computers, build radio transmitters and receivers, create high-efficiency engines, and design reapers, threshers and milking machines. We are indebted both to those whose ideas result in safe and efficient equipment and to those who labor using their inventions.

Although all intelligences are important, they are not all the same. Verbal-comprehension and perceptual organizational intelligences typically address problems with a small set of answers (or just one answer). For example, a test assessing verbal intelligence might ask how to make sense of the nonsensical sentence: “All animals are animals but all cats are not cats” by rearranging its words. A test-taker might quickly respond, “All cats are animals but not all animals are cats.”

By comparison, the problems of personal intelligence aren’t of arranging words into meaningful sequences or understanding general vocabulary. Rather they concern matters such as human psychological needs and individual differences, contrariness and cooperation, the dangerousness of certain individuals and the creative promise of others. These matters concern likelihoods rather than certainties—and the best answer may not pop into place with the sense of satisfaction provided by “Not all animals are cats.” In the Cory/Conner example, Cory was likely to be more cooperative than Conner, but Conner still might have granted our favor. Personal intelligence rests on complex pattern recognition (e.g., who is cooperative) and assessments of likelihoods. Despite its challenges and vagaries, it's important to study.

We urgently need to understand personality because more than ever our world depends on it. Although humanity has gained tremendously from technological discovery and innovation, we also need to understand personality and social influences as well as we can. These are more challenging in many ways than understanding words or circuits: The patterns are more complex and human systems are less predictable. Nonetheless, we need such understanding to ensure that our societies thrive rather than fail; to promote the likelihood that we can live together in peace and that we can enjoy the fruits of what our intelligence—and our labor—provides us.

In other words, we use personal intelligence to solve basic problems of human living—and if we can understand our problem-solving, its limits, and where it can be improved, we may be able to contribute to a more stable and functional society.

To foster such better relationships:

  • We use our personal intelligence to mitigate our “blind spots”—matters we don’t know about ourselves and others. Reducing such misunderstandings can lead to greater accuracy in understanding ourselves and one another.
  • We use our personal intelligence to take responsibility for appreciating and respecting human differences. We all vary and our needs and contributions vary. People who know something about recognizing others’ needs and potential contributions can draw more from their relationships—and give more in return.
  • We use our personal intelligence to better select the opportunities and lower the risks we take. For example, if I know I seek constant excitement, then I can learn from the broader class of people who are “sensation-seekers” like me. I’ll expect that I’ll find extreme sports attractive, and that I might find work as a fire fighter, police officer or other first responder gratifying. On the downside, I’ll need to manage risk well. I’ll know that people who are risk-takers like me run a slightly higher likelihood of getting in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and I’ll monitor my use of these substances carefully. As a second example, if I’m driven to achieve, I could use my personal intelligence to understand that I’ll be happiest fulfilling myself and meeting as many standards of excellence as I can. To minimize my risks, I’ll want to be alert to any temptations I might feel to break important social rules and laws, knowing that high achievers sometimes give in to such temptations. (Consider the recent reports of whether Steve Jobs cavalierly broke antitrust laws.)

Here are some of the ways that studying personal intelligence can help us as a society:

  • We need to better acknowledge and respect people who use their personal intelligence well. We benefit not only from our computers, phones, cars, and farms—but also from people who understand themselves well and interact with others with respect and understanding. To go a bit further: Both people-oriented and product-oriented leaders get good results, but who would you want managing your organization—someone who frequently resorts to force and ignores people’s needs or someone who motivates excellence through understanding and inspiring people?
  • Measures of personal intelligence can help us identify people whose abilities to solve problems in the area of personality are above average. People who see themselves and others most clearly are likely to excel at certain occupations (human resources, counseling) relative to others. They also may be more effective leaders—or advisers to leaders—than people without such skills.
  • Studying personal intelligence will teach us the advantages and limits of personality prediction. For example, we know that we can use personality-relevant information to predict people’s behaviors at levels above chance; we can also understand how good we can get at such prediction (somewhat above chance levels, rarely perfection).
  • The study of personal intelligence involves understanding the foundations of reasoning about personality. As our grasp of how people reason successfully about one another increases, we can better teach that information, strengthening everyone’s abilities in this area.

True, we can’t solve human problems with personal intelligence alone. Advances in our psychological well-being depend not only on our self-understanding, but on other matters as well, including our physical health and social context. We need to promote our health because good brain functioning underlies all forms of problem-solving. We need to improve our social conditions, which requires a better appreciation of social intelligence—understanding power relationships, politics, and  in- and out-group relationships—because that communal level of organization helps tie us together in (we hope) peaceful ways. Our understanding of personality must be coordinated with our biological and social understandings of humanity in order for us to live well. That said, society is made up of individuals.

Our personalities are the basic units of our family, our neighborhoods, and our broader community. That's why we should care about personal intelligence: Understanding personality is an indispensable part of what it means to be human at both an individual and social level. Improving our understanding of personalities may guide our journey toward a more peaceful, better-functioning world.

Notes and References

To learn more about personal intelligence see Mayer, J. D. (2014). Personal intelligence: The power of personality and how it shapes our lives. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Chapters 2 and 3 are focused on how we understand other people. Chapter 8 concerns the societal implications of personal intelligence. 

"All animals are animals but all cats are not cats,” the item is courtesy of SSBCrack.com, at http://www.ssbcrack.com/2013/01/verbal-intelligence-test-syllabus.html

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer

John D. Mayer is Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of numerous scientific articles, books, and psychological tests.

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