How High Is Your Personal Intelligence?

Problem-solvers and good judges of character are high in "PI." How about you?

Posted Apr 22, 2014


But are there additional clues we can use to identify people high in personal intelligence?

Psychologists have studied people with special abilities at perceiving one another, including both case studies of perceptive individuals and laboratory-based studies of "good judges" of personality. These studies suggest that people with high personal intelligence may share certain additional qualities that promote their thinking. Finally, new tests that measure personal intelligence allow us to make “test-based assessments” of personal intelligence and to correlate tests scores with other psychological qualities. Collectively, this research provides clues as to what people who are high in personal intelligence are like—beyond their problem-solving skills. 

Abilities by Definition

According to the theory of personal intelligence, people high in PI can carry out problem-solving about personality better than others. Anyone who consistently exhibits this ability possesses personal intelligence by definition­. In particular, individuals high in personal intelligence are able to:

  • Identify clues to personality
  • Form accurate models of personality—both their own and others’
  • Use personality-based information to guide their choices
  • Systematize their goals and plans

For example, a young man who is high in personal intelligence is likely to pay attention to the character of a new friend—how talkative she is, how lively and engaging—and ask about what she does in her free time. As he learns more about her—for example, that she likes to read novels set in faraway places—this young man might use that information to guide choices—for example, to invite her to dinner at a new Ethiopian restaurant. In addition, he would likely be able to plan activities that he and his friend could enjoy together and pursue goals that she, as well as he, would find meaningful.

Individuals who are high in PI also may suffer from certain vulnerabilities. People with such skills may be more open to criticism than others—openness to criticism is part of developing self-knowledge—and as a consequence he might face an increased risk of depression or dysphoria at some point in his life. Given his skills at self-guidance, however, he is likely to puzzle through such issues (making use of psychotherapy if needed).

By comparison, people lower in personal intelligence would appear relatively out of touch both with their inner states and with what other people are like. They might develop self-concepts that are relatively vague or even inaccurate, and they might fail to take into account others’ personalities and personal preferences when interacting with them. Individuals with lower personal intelligence would likely appear scattered, might have poorly-defined goals, and may find it difficult to exhibit or express coherence in their life choices. Alternatively, they might be highly-directed toward relatively impersonal but laudatory pursuits, such as discovering new mathematical proofs, that don’t require much understanding of themselves or others.

The original 2008 theory of personal intelligence described people high in personal intelligence according to the above picture. Other researchers in allied research programs provide additional images of these individuals.

Who Makes Good Judges?

An alternative description of people high in personal intelligence comes from The Riverside Accuracy Project, directed by David Funder of the University of California at Riverside. Funder was interested in how accurately people evaluate one another’s personalities on average—but the data he and his colleagues collected could be used to identify the best judges of personality as well. In 2008, Tera Letzring of Idaho State University published the results of her search through the project’s data for characteristics of “good judges.”

Letzring concluded that the best judges were people who were relatively comfortable and at ease with people. When a good judge meets a new person, he or she appears interested in the other individual, listens to her attentively, and asks questions to draw her out. The good judge helps the person to feel comfortable. As a consequence, people reveal more about themselves to good judges than to others. In addition, good judges appear to be agreeable to what other people say—which in turn draws others further out.

Do You Want a Perceptive Leader?

Yet another picture of people high in personal intelligence comes from case studies. Maia Hazelwood and Richard Wilson, who were honors students in my laboratory in 2009, found some evidence that people could agree as to which of eight prominent business leaders—Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, and others—were high or low in personal intelligence. This study was small so our results are tentative, but they do provide another data point.

The leaders with the highest personal intelligence spoke of drawing on personal memories to motivate themselves, were sensitive to other people’s motives, and (to our surprise) sometimes commented openly about their higher-than-usual self-knowledge. Equally surprising, leaders who were evaluated as lower in personal intelligence sometimes acknowledged their relative lack of interest in knowing more about themselves. One had even developed a philosophy against self-understanding: “When you start studying yourself too deeply," he remarked, "you start seeing things that you don’t want to see.” (More case examples of personal intelligence can be found in my book, Personal Intelligence.)

What the Tests Tell Us

The gold standard for assessing an intelligence involves asking people to solve problems. The fourth area of information about personal intelligence comes from tests that do just that. The Test of Personal Intelligence (TOPI) that I’ve developed with my colleagues David R. Caruso and Abigail T. Panter is an ability-based measure we have used to study reasoning about personality—and who does it well.   

Our research reveals that people who score high on the TOPI are also higher in verbal intelligence than average. Consistent with Letzring’s findings, these individuals are relatively more agreeable in social circumstances than others. In addition, they view themselves as relatively conscientious. They are open to experience, and in fact, express curiosity about understanding their own and others’ mental processes—a characteristic psychologists refer to as psychological-mindedness.

None of these clues—openness, curiosity about people, or any of the others—is a conclusive sign of personal intelligence. They are just hints. In fact, any sort of person—including a closed person without much curiosity about personality—can be relatively high in PI.

Some Cautions

People with high personal intelligence can have any kind of personality: There are at least a few people high in personal intelligence who also are disagreeable, careless, and closed-minded, or who have little interest in how people think and feel. That acknowledged, people higher in personal intelligence are a bit more likely than others to be interested in their own and others’ mental life, to be above average in verbal intelligence, to be agreeable and to put other people at ease, to be open to other points of view, and to use personal memories to motivate themselves. Although these characteristics are more likely to accompany personal intelligence than not, only the problem-solving ability itself—recognizing clues to personality, forming accurate models of people, and the like—is key to possessing personal intelligence.  


For 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 Strauss, Giroux. Or, Mayer, J. D. (2009). Personal intelligence expressed: A theoretical analysis. Review of General Psychology, 13, 46-58.

Letzring, Tera D. (2008). The good judge of personality: Characteristics, behaviors, and observer accuracy. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 914-932

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer