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Wondering if Personal Intelligence Exists

Does the advice people give reflect their personal intelligence?

From the beginning of recorded history, ancient philosophers have given us advice about how to gauge people’s characters. Ptahotep, an advisor to Egyptian royalty, urged his students to listen carefully to a new acquaintance before forming an alliance—and if they had any doubts about a possible ally, to keep their thoughts to themselves. The ancient Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, advised studying different personality types for examples to follow and to avoid. Today, self-help books that deal with personality can be found in bookstores on shelves that range from health, to sports, to business. Self-help authors are regulars on the lecture circuit.

There is, in fact, so much practical advice about how to live our lives—from philosophers, clergy, educators, therapists and self-help authors, that it may seem overwhelming at times.

I began contemplating all that advice a number of years ago—there were many good ideas in the best of those writings, I thought, and more than a few errors as well. But where did the ideas come from, and why were the ideas repeated so many times from author to author with just slight variations?

What if, I wondered, there were some universal ways of thinking about human nature? And what if, in addition, there were a group of people who were especially adept at reasoning accurately about personality? Many of those individuals would be especially interested in and skilled at understanding their own and others’ personalities—and as a consequence, their advice would be especially prized. Thinkers of the ancient world with high levels of the skill would formulate advice and their thinking would be handed down from generation to generation. Thinkers of today—some of them—would write magazine articles and books about how to develop self-knowledge and how to relate to different kinds of people.

Continuing to speculate, I wondered if these advice-givers often gave similar pieces of advice because their ideas emerged from a kind of expert reasoning they shared in common. I had to file away these ideas for a time, however, as another part of my theoretical work reached completion.

In 1990, Peter Salovey of Yale University and I introduced a theory of emotional intelligence: that there exists an ability to reason specifically about emotions and to use one’s emotions to promote thought. People high in emotional intelligence, we argued, can identify and label emotions, understand how one emotion might change into another (e.g., frustration into anger), use their emotions to enrich their thinking and know how to manage emotions.

Many people understood the idea we were trying to express very well. But there were others who interpreted our concept of emotional intelligence to mean something quite a bit broader than we had intended—adding to it non-emotional, non-intellectual (though often virtuous) qualities such as optimism, zeal, persistence and the like.

Emotional intelligence was the ability to reason accurately about emotions and emotional information. It was an organic whole where all the pieces—perceiving emotional information, and reasoning about it—fit together into an elegant, well-constructed whole (as I saw it)—one that’s held up well under research scrutiny for 20-odd years.

Adding various personality traits such as optimism and persistence to emotional intelligence was rather like fastening antlers onto the head of a cat (emotional intelligence) to make a reindeer. The cat’s antlers represent the optimism and persistence other people thought were part of the cat, but are outside the definition. You can be emotionally intelligent without being an optimist, for example. Through no fault of your own, your life experience may have taught you that bad things often happen. So you’re a pessimist—but that doesn't mean you’re stupid about emotions. The mantle of optimism and motivation was being strapped on to emotional intelligence in an unnatural way.

As unfortunate as was this strapping on of additional virtues (it mixed up parts of personality), I thought I perceived in it an impulse similar to my own—that when we think of ourselves our thinking naturally extends beyond the emotions to other parts of our mental life. Let’s say that this jerry-rigged reindeer was the seed of a future idea. There are, of course, real reindeer: Might there also be a real intelligence having to do with personality?

I wondered whether there might be such a "personal intelligence," as I began to refer to it. The idea, however, was fraught and conflicted for many psychologists—especially so in the 1990s (for reasons I elaborate in the book, Personal Intelligence). Could personality be defined to people’s satisfaction? Does an individual's character really make a difference in her life?

Acknowledging these and other questions, I grew increasingly convinced that the idea of personal intelligence was workable. And, in a series of articles beginning in 2008, I suggested that there may exist a personal intelligence, which I define as

“the capacity to reason about personality and to use personality and personal information to enhance one’s thoughts, plans, and life experience.” (Mayer, 2008, p. 209)

I saw several areas of problem-solving that were central to personal intelligence: People would need to be able to pick up clues to personality, to form them into coherent models of people, to use that information to guide their choices, and to plan their lives (as best as possible under the conditions they faced) using this knowledge.

In 2008, personal intelligence was a conjecture, or more formally, a hypothesis. Since that time, however, my colleagues and I have found evidence that the ability exists. If personal intelligence exists and functions as my colleagues and I believe it does, then knowledge of its existence and how it works will enlarge our understanding of human beings and our intellectual capacities.

This represents a tipping point: Out of an ancient interest in understanding our selves and other people, we are now, thanks to new research over the past few decades, able to specify the exact reasoning involved in doing so. For example, we ask people “What qualities most usually go together in a person: (a) patience and sympathy or (b) takativeness and dutifulness.” Some people correctly recognize that patience and sympathy are more likely to go together than the alternative but other people do not.

Appreciating how people reason in this area may explain why some people who are particularly good at understanding personality are able to find calmness within and understand the people around them. And it may explain why some people are particularly good at giving advice about the personalities around us and how to navigate the different characters we encounter.


Today, self-help books can be found on shelves in bookstore sections…See the quote from John Duff in Vanderkam, L. (2012, Autumn). The paperback quest for joy. City Journal, 22, Retrieved from:

…in a series of articles beginning in 2008… For an annotated list of the works, see here. The first article was Mayer, J. D. (2008). Personal intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 27, 209-232.

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer

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