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Five Advances in how Psychologists View Personality

From 1995 to 2010 psychologists changed their understanding of personality.

Before 1995, the discipline of personality psychology appeared uncertain and disorganized, and many scientists thought that personality had a minimal influence on our lives. After 2007, the discipline became more integrated and the power of personality became more widely appreciated than before.

This integration and the understanding it fostered provided a foundation for me as I developed my theory of personal intelligence—the idea that we reason accurately about personality and that some people are more skilled at this than others. Several decades ago, anyone who might have intuited an intelligence having to do with self-knowledge or understanding others would not have gotten very far. (A few tried, in fact, but without much success.) By 2007, once the new advances were well underway, developing a theory of personal intelligence—and demonstrating its existence—became possible.

Here are some of the factors that markedly changed the discipline of personality psychology and made the idea of a personal intelligence more possible.

1. Psychologists Began to Unify their View of Personality

Up to 2000 or so, psychologists employed a multiple-theory-approach to study personality, employing a set of diverse and often contradictory theories of personality that dated from the beginning of the 20th century—those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers and others. Although there was general agreement that these theories were terribly outdated, there were few attractive alternatives for thinking about the discipline.

For ten years leading up to the mid-2000s, the American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, had published virtually nothing about personality psychology. Then, in 2005 and 2006, the editors published two articles describing new integrations of personality psychology that emphasized contemporary research. One article, by Dan McAdams and Jennifer Pals, identified five areas of ongoing studies of personality:

"(1) an individual’s unique variation on the general evolutionary design for human nature, expressed as a developing pattern of (2) dispositional traits, (3) characteristic adaptations, and (4) self-defining life narratives, complexly and differentially situated (5) in culture and social context."

The other article, which I wrote, presented the Personality Systems Framework, and recommended that personality be examined according to four topics: (1) personality’s definition and location, (2) personality’s parts, (3) the organization of those parts, and (4) personality development. Both of these approaches were signs of a sea-change for the field—a new focus on personality itself (as opposed to older theories). More than coincidentally, I suspect, the Association for Research in Personality, was founded in 2001 and quickly became a respected voice in the area.

2. Psychologists Recognized Personality was a Consequential System

A longer-term issue was also resolved around this time. From 1968 to 2008, psychologists had argued among themselves as to whether personality was ephemeral or important to our lives. Some personality and social psychologists—and a few anthropologists—believed that personality was a will o’ the wisp phenomenon subject to a person’s situation and culture. These scientists argued that people were largely unpredictable in their behavior and for that reason there was little reason to study personality. In 2009, the Journal of Research in Personality published a rare special issue that summed up the ideas in the debate, and described the agreed-upon outcome: Personality is a consequential system. Each of us has a personality that exhibits persistent patterns over time—patterns that influence our lives. People also adapt to their situations and that makes it challenging to predict a given individual's behavior at a certain moment in time. In other words, personality matters—as do the situations we face.

Several years earlier, there already was a general sense in the field that personality was of growing importance to study. In 2007, five leading personality researchers published a consensus work on the power of personality and how it affects key outcomes of our lives.

3. Psychologists Gathered New Sets of Data about Personality

From 1995 to 2010, new data also became available about personality. For example, Lew Goldberg, the eminent Oregon-based personality psychologist, founded the International Personality Item Pool, an online resource that helped psychologists understand the likelihood that two or more traits, such as anxiety and sensitivity, go together. Researchers using the site could provide a sound empirical description of the co-occurrence of traits. My own and other research teams were able to use this information to discover that some people high in personal intelligence accurately recognized co-occurrences of traits—for example, that anxiety and depression often go together in a person—whereas other people were less sensitive to the relationships among traits.

4. Psychologists Renewed the Empirical Study of Self-Knowledge

Personality psychologists began to express a resurgent interest in studying self-knowledge. In 2004, Timothy Wilson and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of Virginia (Dunn is now at the University of British Columbia), reviewed what was known up to that time about self-knowledge and concluded that although we had learned something about it, much remained to be explored. The following year, David Dunning of Cornell University summarized his research in a thoughtful book entitled, “Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself.”

5. Psychologists Began to Research How We Perceive Personality Accurately

In the mid-2000’s, psychologists began to identify the characteristics of people who were especially good at judging personality. Fifteen years earlier, David R. Funder of the University of California, Riverside had developed an interest in how accurately people perceived one another. He founded the Riverside Accuracy Project to study people’s ability to perceive personality accurately. By the mid-1990’s the group had published a number of research articles on people’s ability to perceive one another—and had determined that accurate judges had better interpersonal skills and were more cooperative than their less accurate peers.

Implications of the Advances

In summary these advances meant that:

  • The old grand theories of the 20th century “were over” in the sense that they now took on a distinctly historical character.
  • Psychologists recognized that personality exerted an influence over our lives through its expression of a pattern of behavior over time.
  • Psychologists mapped out which traits rose and fell with one another across people.
  • Psychologists began to directly examine what it takes to develop accurate self-knowledge—and to understand other people accurately.

Personal Intelligence

As these changes in the field became clearer, I and others began to examine scientific research articles that outlined people’s abilities to understand their own and other’s personalities, to draw those articles together and to integrate them. In my case, I argued further that a possible intelligence might account for how people reason about personality—and for how well they do so.

Many of the research advances in personality were “baked in” to the theory of personal intelligence I introduced in 2008. The theory of personal intelligence proposed that people use their abilities to problem solve in four areas:

  • To identify clues to personality
  • To use those clues to form (sometimes) accurate models of people (both of oneself and others)
  • To use information about personality to guide oneself and others
  • To systematize one’s plans and goals

Each of those areas called on problem-solving of a different kind. No coherent tests existed to measure that reasoning at the time—such a comprehensive test still lay a year or two in the future.

Nonetheless, by 2007 the advances in the field provided a new foundation for examining personality—one that made it possible to describe a new intelligence that people might possess. Research from 1995 forward suggested that people problem-solved about personality and that personality matters. The theory of personal intelligence suggested that the different areas of reasoning about personality might be related. There also was evidence to suggest that people who could reason well about themselves and others' personalities might have important adaptive advantages.

Selected References

New Ways of Looking at Personality: Mayer, J. D. (2005). A tale of two visions: Can a new view of personality help integrate psychology? American Psychologist, 60, 294-307. And, McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new big five: Fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American Psychologist, 61, 204-217.

Self-Knowledge: Wilson, T. D., & Dunn, E. W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 493-518. Dunning, D. (2005). Self-insight: Roadblocks and detours on the path to knowing thyself. New York: Psychology Press.

Reading People: Christiansen, N. D., Wolcott-Burnam, S., Janovics, J. E., Burns, G. N., & Quirk, S. W. (2005). The good judge revisited: Individual differences in the accuracy of personality judgments. Human Performance, 18, 123-149. And, Letzring, T. D. (2008). The good judge of personality: Characteristics, behavior, and observer accuracy. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 914-932.

The Agreement that Personality Mattered: The Journal of Research in Personality published a special issue (Volume 43, Number 2), “Personality and assessment at Age 40: Reflections on the Past Person-Situation Debate and Emerging Directions of Future Person-Situation Integration.

Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A. & Goldberg, L. R. (2007). The power of personality: The comparative validity of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 313-345.

Personal Intelligence: Mayer, J. D. (2014). Personal intelligence. New York: Scientific American/Farrar Strauss, Giroux.

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer