What's smart? A high number of IQ points? Having a stable, friendly and welcoming character? The ability to respond to other people's emotions? Ambition? Or all of the above? Even though psychologists have spent a lot of time and effort (but mostly time) to explore ‘the smart
person', they haven't gotten very far -- at least in the eyes of laypeople. The problem starts with defining ‘smart': Does being smart mean being rich (is Rupert Murdoch smart?), or holding a high social position (is George W Bush not smart?), or being very knowledgeable (is your grandfather smarter than George W Bush?)? The next problem is to identify the factors that play a role in being smart. For a long time, psychologists focused on IQ , proclaiming that intelligence was the core of being smart. In fact, being smart was equated with being successful (mmh, just that both terms are equally vague and impossible to define) and being successful was understood to be a consequence of having a high IQ. Needless to say, that this was firstly a tautological, and secondly an inaccurate claim (how many people became successful because they were good at completing IQ tests - not counting test development companies?).

More recently, other variables - in particular, personality traits and belief systems - have become of central interest in psychology. For example, Carol Dweck and her colleagues found that children who believed that they could improve their intelligence were better in task solving and more persistent when confronted with difficulty than children who thought their intelligence was fixed. Note that the two groups did not differ in their actual intelligence: all kids were matched on IQ. Not giving up on difficult problems is surely part of being smart; therefore, believing that you can improve your IQ already makes you smart (maybe as smart as actual IQ does). As Henry Ford once said: "Whether you think you can do it or not, you are usually right".

Others -- including myself -- have shown that personality traits, mostly described in terms of the Big Five, have important consequences for success and failure in school and work environments. And being good at school and successful at work are also part of being smart, no? Beyond school and job, personality is linked with health, with well-being, with marital stability and with happiness. Even though intelligence is also related to some of these outcomes, its effects tend to be smaller than the influence of personality. However, researchers are just beginning to understand the manifold effects personality has for all kinds of life outcomes.

Psychologists also face a third problem: they need to figure out how intelligence and personality are related to one another and to being smart. For example, high IQ students may be a little lazy in school because they rely on their greater IQ to get them through. Conversely, less able individuals may work twice as hard to make up for their lower intelligence. Ultimately, those two groups would probably end up being equally smart - one via effort and one via ability - or would they? Another question is if high IQ people earn a more money than folks with lower cognitive ability, and if this association depends on individual differences in personality. For example, intelligent people, who are emotionally stable and have a calm character, may earn more money because they quietly (and logically) solve a task without panicking. Therefore, they are time efficient; their colleagues enjoy working with them; and they can take on the next task set without a break. Many of you -- especially if you work in academia -- would have also met the intelligent, high-strung type, whose constant worry and anxious complaints alienate colleagues, triple the amount of work needed to solve a task, and leave the person themselves exhausted and on the waiting list for rehab.

Obviously, this is only one of many questions about the relationship between intelligence and
personality, and how they contribute to being smart. But for this and all the other questions, research doesn't know many answers. But I think it is important for us to know: the example above shows how understanding intelligence-personality mechanisms can help improving the workplace (and it's not only about increasing business profits but about creating better work environments - ever worked for a high-strung boss?). Together with my collegue Dr Sophie von Stumm, we are exploring ways of re-defining intelligence to better predict individual differences in achievement and career success (if you live near London, in the UK, drop me an e-mail to take part in these paid studies).

Another example of success beyond IQ is the case of entrepreneurship. Indeed, our own recent studies suggest that people who work for themselves and set up businesses, or create value for organisations by being innovative and pro-active at work, do not differ from the average person in terms of IQ. Our latest study explores whether entrepreneurs are more psychopathic than the average person -- take our free short online test and get instant feedback on your personality here.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Sophie von Stumm for her help with this blog.

You are reading

Mr. Personality

Why Are Older People More Conservative?

Decoding the politics of aging.

World Cup Psychology

How the beautiful game and the science of the mind will collide in Brazil.

Why We All Need an Antidote to Optimism

Our quest for self-esteem is out of control, one expert says. Time for a reboot?