Watching the People Watchers

We are hardwired to pay attention to people's personalities.

Posted Apr 08, 2014

I’ve become very interested in watching people problem-solve about the personalities around them because their doing so provides examples of personal intelligence in everyday life. Personal intelligence is the ability to understand both one’s own and others’ personalities—and we use it to understand ourselves and one another.

This past week, I ran across three news items about people engaged in problem-solving about people: President George W. Bush recalled an incident that helped him understand Vladimir Putin; video artist Ryan Trecartin reflected on how our personal identities are shaped by our surroundings; and the filmmaker Errol Morris tried to fathom the mind of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I’ll introduce each attempt at understanding—and then comment on them at the end.

President Bush Watches Vladimir Putin

On April 3, 2014 President Bush was interviewed on the Today Show (NBC) by his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, about the opening of an exhibition of his paintings at the Bush Library under the title “Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy.” The exhibit includes paintings of 24 world leaders, but the interview centered on his portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush observed that Putin saw the United States as an adversary and framed interactions with the US in terms of “win or lose”. At his daughter’s prompting, Bush recounted a story in which he observed Putin’s character.

On a visit to the White House, Putin encountered Barney, the Bush family’s Scottish terrier—a dog with “a special spot" in the President's heart. Putin had other thoughts about Barney and “kind of dissed him,” Bush recalled, remarking “You really call that a dog?” A year later, Bush and his wife Laura traveled to Russia and visited Putin at his Dacha. There, Putin asked if he would like to meet his dog. Bush recounted: “Out bounds this huge hound obviously much bigger than a Scottish terrier,” and Putin said, “Bigger, stronger and faster than Barney.”

His daughter then asked, “And you kind of thought, ‘Is it symbolic of what he thinks’?”

The President responded: “Well, I just sort of took it in--I didn’t react and I just said, ‘Wow, you know, anybody thinks my dog is bigger than your dog, y’know, is an interesting character...’."

Ryan Trecartin and I-be area

In the March 24 issue of The New Yorker, the essayist Calvin Tomkins profiled Ryan Trecartin, a contemporary innovator in video art, and his collaborators. Trecartin’s video works have been featured in major galleries around the country. His videos feature bold colors, “chaotic energy…, handheld camera techniques, the breaking of rules, and the theme of young people trying on different identities.” At one point, Tomkins asked Trecartin about the meaning of one of his best-known films, “I-be area.”  Trecartin replied:

“The basic idea of the film is that what identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others. You are your area, rather than you are yourself. If someone describes you, that description becomes a part of your area, whether you like it or not.”

Trecartin's thinking about the question of who we are is deep and provocative. (You can see a several minute clip of "I-be area" here, courtesy of the New York Times).

Errol Morris Wonders about Donald Rumsfeld

In the March 25thNew York Times, Errol Morris expressed his frustration over being unable to understand much about Donald Rumsfeld (and the policies he set for the nation).

"…after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be?"

In the Times article, Morris took as his starting point some of Rumsfeld’s remarks at an historic February 12th, 2002 White House press briefing. There, the NBC Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski asked Rumsfeld whether he believed that the Iraqi president possessed weapons of mass destruction and would be willing to share them with terrorists. Miklaszewski noted, “…there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.” Rumsfeld’s often-quoted reply was:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

—to which Miklaszewski followed-up, “Excuse me. But is this an unknown unknown?” Rumsfeld ultimately replied, “I’m not going to say which it is.”

Recounting his hours of interviews with Rumsfeld, Morris asked, “How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?” A key matter in using our personal intelligence is to ask: When does reading the other person fail (and can we know something about such instances)?

Some Comments

All three of these examples concern people trying to figure out personality. That “figuring out” is part of the “problem space” of personal intelligence. The idea of a “problem space” was worked out by Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University. They defined a problem space in part as knowing the problem solver’s present state of knowledge, what he or she wants to know, something about the procedures and possibilities of solving the problem, and how the learner solves the problem (if it can be solved).

President Bush’s thoughts about Vladimir Putin begin with what would typically be a friendly, animal-loving moment: Bush introduced Vladimir Putin to his dog Barney and later met Putin's dog. The Russian leader's disparagement of Bush's dog and pride in his own pet revealed his competitive and power-seeking nature. By Bush's own account, Putin’s comments revealed "an interesting character"—with implications for the Russian leader's need for power in the future.

Ryan Trecartin’s artistic intuition that our personalities are molded by the “areas” around us is spot-on as I see it. In “I-be area” a character sells to another person the rights to her parents, cell phone, clothes, and other items. The buyer is motivated by a desire to change his life. That’s a rather ingenious means of communicating that who we are can be shaped by the area we inhabit. Changing our environment is, in fact, an important method of changing ourselves. For a psychologist's version of the “area we inhabit,” see my diagram of personality and its surroundings (click here and scroll down to the figure).

As for Errol Morris and his try at understanding the then-Secretary of Defense, the journalist Pam Hess remarked of Rumsfeld:

"I don’t think anyone could ever get him to admit regret or question his past actions. It’s not in his DNA, and I don’t think he feels regret for anything. This is a supremely self-assured person who believes he makes the best decisions possible given the information and the situation at hand, and then lets the chips fall where they may…He is, I believe, exactly who he presents to the world."

Morris runs up against several challenging issues in personality-watching with Donald Rumsfeld. First, each of us exercises the right to withhold information from others—and there are certain groups of individuals who are especially non-transparent (unwilling to share of themselves). People who seek high levels of power are in prolonged competitions with others. These individuals learn that their hopes, thoughts, and dreams could be used against them should they reveal certain human vulnerabilities.

In addition, as Pam Hess suggests about Donald Rumsfeld, certain leaders may be very low in most forms of psychological-mindedness: they lack interest in their own and others’ mental processes and states. True, intellectual, competitive leaders can be very thoughtful about their own strictly cognitive problem-solving processes but secret away certain motives and feelings. Such leaders may be largely "a known unknown" to themselves.

Examining how President Bush, Ryan Trecartin and Errol Morris think about personality provides instances of personal intelligence in action. Events have made clear that Vladimir Putin is competitive and interested in power. Our cultural history reveals that many artists and writers have unusually fine senses of human personality. And some people may always remain unknowns; understanding their actions may be an impenetrable mystery.

As I've described in my new book on personal intelligence, we are hardwired to explore what’s going on in our own and others’ minds. Psychologists have made striking advances in how we understand ourselves using new experimental techniques, neuropsychological explorations, and mental tests. As the three news reports I've discussed suggest, we draw on our personal intelligence when we are faced with understanding ourselves and comprehending the key people in our lives.


The discussion of the video artwork of Ryan Trecartin is by Tomkins, C. (2014, March 24). Experimental people: The exuberant world of a video-art visionary. The New Yorker, XC, 38-46.

President George W. Bush was interviewed on April 4th, 2014. The interview is at: The section from which I’ve transcribed his quotes is 1:55 to 3:11.

Morris, E. (March 25, 2014). The certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. New York Times: The Opinion Pages. Retrieved from

“The idea of known and unknown unknowns…” from page xiv of Rumsfeld, D. (2011). Known and Unknown: A memoir.  New York: Sentinel/Penguin.

Pam Hess’s quote is from Morris, E. (March 25, 2014). The certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. New York Times: The Opinion Pages. Retrieved from

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer