Personality is the system that organizes our mental life—our motives and emotions, knowledge and intelligences, our styles of expression and our self-management. Parts of personality range from agreeableness to verbal intelligence; from extraversion to musical talent. One of the chief tasks of personality psychologists is to define, measure, and catalog these pieces of personality. Studies of personality's parts are crucial because, from such research, we learn to better recognize and label aspects of personality which, in turn, helps us to improve our understanding of who we and others are.

Every so often, a psychologist will propose the existence of a new part of personality that reflects a new human capability or quality. Those proposals, if accepted, have the capacity to expand our sense of who we are. When a psychologist proposes a new part of personality, colleagues in the discipline evaluate the logic behind the claim even before conducting any research on it. A newly-proposed part of personality should be plausible, original, clearly-formulated, measurable, and of some importance. The initial vetting is helpful because it helps to ensure that the part meets important standards before resources are spent studying it. It may take years of empirical research before the part is widely accepted—or rejected. If the part fails to meet certain agreed-upon standards, learning of its weaknesses early can save years of wasted research efforts.


Plausibility involves the likelihood that the proposed part of personality actually exists. For example, the ancient philosopher who first described “sociability” (or extraversion) was plainly describing something plausible because it could be readily seen. According to evolutionary psychologists, we may even have evolved difference detectors to discern who is sociable among us and who is not (see this previous post). Sociability is hard to miss and hard to ignore.

Other proposed parts of personality are more controversial. Researchers may pursue an implausible-seeming part of personality out of their curiosity and because, in the event the part was real, it would alter our picture of human nature dramatically.

One of these proposed parts is “remote viewing” ability—the idea that people possess the ability to receive information by extrasensory perception (ESP). To test whether remote viewing exists, researchers assign a person to serve as a remote viewer. This individual is left relaxing in a room and is asked to receive information from a second person—the “transmitter” or sender. The sender is physically separated from the viewer and observes a stimulus such as one of four pre-selected photographs. The remote viewer, in turn, tries to describe what the transmitter sees. A number of positive research reports based on these tests have failed to alter an overwhelmingly skeptical response from psychologists. Those who argue against the findings make the reasonable claim that many failures to find the effect are never published, leading, in essence, to an over-counting of positive findings The implausibility of mind-reading across distances (with no well-understood mechanism to account for it) leaves the proposed ability adrift in a netherworld of speculation for the time being. (For more information, I recommend Joachim Krueger’s posts).

Clarity of Formulation—and of Measurability

Sometimes a newly-proposed part of personality which is initially controversial is gradually confirmed to most researchers’ satisfaction. That was the case with emotional intelligence. I first proposed the existence of emotional intelligence, with my colleague Peter Salovey, in a 1990 article “Emotional Intelligence.” Emotional intelligence, we wrote, concerned the ability to reason accurately about emotions. In a second paper that same year, we reported* an empirical demonstration that indicated it might be possible to measure the mental ability.  Our early research raised a number of red flags—the idea was a bit unusual and seemed to undermine traditional intelligence research. At the same time, some enthusiasts for the idea were making claims in the media that emotional intelligence might be hugely important for success (my colleagues and I had never made such claims). One research team took a more skeptical perspective, arguing in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that (in their analysis) “…little remains of emotional intelligence that is unique and psychometrically sound.” My colleagues and I certainly agreed people were overclaiming our concept. Yet evidence from our lab continued to indicate that emotional intelligence existed—the idea was sound. 

Early on, I focused with Dr. Salovey on specifying the intelligence as clearly as we possibly could so that measures of it could be developed and the whole idea could be confirmed—or disconfirmed—by interested researchers. For example, we specified four areas of problem-solving in emotional intelligence and, with Dr. David R. Caruso, provided demonstrations of test items that could be written within each area. By 2008 enough evidence had accumulated in support of emotional intelligence that the Editorial Board of the Annual Review of Psychology invited us to review the research in the area. And by 2013, an independent group of researchers provided evidence that emotional intelligence might belong in a widely-accepted contemporary model of intelligences, including verbal, perceptual-organizational, spatial and other intelligences.


Another criterion for introducing a new part of personality is that the part is truly original. Some newly-proposed parts of personality are simply renamed versions of already-existing and well-known parts of personality. Writing in 1927, Truman Lee Kelley, an expert in mental measurement, had noted that psychologists sometimes used different names for the same psychological attribute, a fallacy I’ll refer to as the “renaming” fallacy.

I recently named a newly-proposed intelligence from my lab “personal intelligence.” (The rationale for the term can be found here). I wanted to be careful that, in assigning a new name to the attribute, I was describing a new ability. I defined personal intelligence as the capacity to reason about personality and personality-related information. But it’s reasonable to ask whether this idea simply renames some already-existing part of personality known to psychologists. To find out whether that was the case, I carefully examined precursors to the concept.

In the mid-20th century, researchers at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas introduced the idea of “psychological mindedness.” These researchers were studying therapy patients with an eye to exploring who benefited from psychotherapy and who did not. They defined “psychological mindedness” as the ability that certain patients had to think about themselves and their inner worlds. However, the leading scale of psychological mindedness for much of the late 20th century treated this part of personality not as an ability, but rather as a self-evaluated interest (e.g., “I am interested in why other people think the way they do” Agree or Disagree). Personal intelligence, as I conceived it, is an ability and is measured as an ability—and it pertains to personality not only in ourselves but in others as well.

A second precursor was Howard Gardner’s concept of intrapersonal intelligence—an intelligence about the self. Indeed, intrapersonal intelligence was sometimes shortened to ‘personal intelligence’ by some psychologists. But, as Gardner saw it, his intrapersonal intelligence contained at its core sensing emotions, which in turn leads to forming an identity. Intrapersonal intelligence also was limited to understanding these attributes in oneself; it was a member of a pair with interpersonal intelligence—an intelligence for understanding other people, values, and social structure.

My concept of personal intelligence, by comparison, has at its heart the understanding of personality—whether our own or someone else’s. This has important implications for how personal intelligence is measured. Personal intelligence, as I defined it, seemed distinct from earlier concepts. (For more on the new qualities of personal intelligence, see here). Because personal intelligence was distinct, it needed it's own name (personal intelligence). Otherwise, I would have committed the fallacy of using the same name for different concepts. (Text continues below the figure.)

"Good Practices" Figure: The figure below illustrates good practices and fallacies in naming parts of personality. In the example discussed in the text, "personal intelligence" is considered different from old parts (bottom row: "The Old and New Parts are Different") and so is given a new name (bottom left, "Good Practice" box).

Of course, a new intelligence also needs to be clearly defined and plausible before it can be demonstrated—I’ll return to these points in relation to personal intelligence in the coming weeks. For now, however, there remains at least one more matter of importance.


Beyond plausibility, originality, clarity and measurability, a newly proposed part should be of some interest to psychologists who find the part useful to explaining or predicting personality. If the idea is only of interest to the individual proposing it, then few other people will pursue studies of the new part.

I should mention that a personality quality can show promise in many of these areas—plausibility, distinctiveness, clarity, and even significance—and still be neglected. The example that comes to mind is the concept of “pronoia,” introduced by Queens College (New York) professor Fred Goldner in 1982. Pronoia is the idea that people are saying unrealistically positive things behind one’s back—and that mere acquaintances are true friends. At first glance it seems like an amusing, clever idea and Goldner did see the humor of it, but he was serious about it as well. Like Goldner, I think I have known some people with this quality: One of its hallmarks is that individuals with pronoia see themselves as indispensable to an organization when in fact their status is more tenuous than that. Needless to say, this can lead them to behave recklessly with their supervisors—and they can find themselves in trouble or even out of work. At any rate, Goldner proposed the idea, clearly defined it, and two other articles commented upon his ideas. So far as I know, that was the end of it.

I suspect that people with pronioa (if it exists) would have very high self-esteem, positive attitudes toward others—and low personal intelligence. Personal intelligence, in this case, would account for why people with pronoia would have such difficulty understanding how other people actually view them. (Higher personal intelligence contributes to a person's accuracy in judging her social relationships, potentially increasing her well-being over time).

To develop a part of personality, be it personal intelligence, emotional intelligence, or pronoia requires proposing something plausible, clear and original, and then devoting sustained research attention to its understanding.


*In a second paper that same year we reported... This report was coauthored with Maria DiPaolo, who was then an undergraduate student in my lab with a background in the arts. She drew designs that test-takers looked at. The participants then tried to guess the emotions conveyed in each.


A number of positive research reports have failed to alter... The study of remote viewing is a complex and difficult-to-evaluate area at present. For one recent publication, see, Rouder, J. N., Morey, R. D., & Province, J. M. (2013). A bayes factor meta-analysis of recent extrasensory perception on experiments: Comment on Storm, Tressoldi, and Di Risio (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 241-247.

I first proposed the existence of emotional intelligence, with my colleague Peter Salovey...See Salovey , P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211.

In a second paper...we reportedMayer, J. D., DiPaolo, M. T., & Salovey, P. (1990). Perceiving affective content in ambiguous visual stimuli: A component of emotional intelligence. Journal of Personality Assessment, 54, 772–781.

One research team took a more skeptical...“…little remains”… from p. 1013 of Davies, M., Stankov, L. & Roberts, R. D. (1998). Emotional intelligence: In search of an elusive construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 989-1015.

I focused with Dr. Salovey on specifying the intelligence... See Mayer, J. D. & Salovey (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds.). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Implications for educators (pp. 3-31). New York: Basic Books.

Enough evidence had accumulated: Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D. & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 507-536.

And by 2013, an independent group… MacCann, C. J., Joseph, D. L., Newman, D.A. & Roberts, R. D. (23013). Emotion, December 16, 2013, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034755

I recently named a newly-proposed 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. (The book's website).

The concept of “pronoia”. Goldner, F. H. (1982). Pronia. Social Problems, 30, 82-91.

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer

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