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Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives

Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives

by John D. Mayer

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John D. Mayer, the renowned psychologist who co-developed the groundbreaking theory of emotional intelligence, now draws on decades of cognitive psychology research to introduce another paradigm-shifting idea: that in order to become our best selves, we use an even broader intelligence—which he calls personal intelligence—to understand our own


John D. Mayer, the renowned psychologist who co-developed the groundbreaking theory of emotional intelligence, now draws on decades of cognitive psychology research to introduce another paradigm-shifting idea: that in order to become our best selves, we use an even broader intelligence—which he calls personal intelligence—to understand our own personality and the personalities of the people around us.
In Personal Intelligence, Mayer explains that we are naturally curious about the motivations and inner worlds of the people we interact with every day. Some of us are talented at perceiving what makes our friends, family, and coworkers tick. Some of us are less so. Mayer reveals why, and shows how the most gifted "readers" among us have developed "high personal intelligence." Mayer's theory of personal intelligence brings together a diverse set of findings—previously regarded as unrelated—that show how much variety there is in our ability to read other people's faces; to accurately weigh the choices we are presented with in relationships, work, and family life; and to judge whether our personal life goals conflict or go together well. He persuasively argues that our capacity to problem-solve in these varied areas forms a unitary skill.
Illustrating his points with examples drawn from the lives of successful college athletes, police detectives, and musicians, Mayer shows how people who are high in personal intelligence (open to their inner experiences, inquisitive about people, and willing to change themselves) are able to anticipate their own desires and actions, predict the behavior of others, and—using such knowledge—motivate themselves over the long term and make better life decisions. And in outlining the many ways we can benefit from nurturing these skills, Mayer puts forward an essential message about selfhood, sociability, and contentment. Personal Intelligence is an indispensable book for anyone who wants to better comprehend how we make sense of our world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Personality is not merely the sum of an individual’s characteristics, it is a profound social force that influences our lives and interactions. Mayer, a contributor to the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, coined the term “personal intelligence” in order to describe our inherent need to understand the people around us. Personal intelligence includes a spectrum of proficiencies, and there is a degree to which it can be learned and cultivated. Any apt assessment of others begins, or at least is correlated with, an ability to know one’s self, and Mayer explores patterns of personal intelligence from adolescence to adulthood. He draws on anecdotes and research—some of it his own—and also describes his methods of testing and measuring what psychologists have long deemed immeasurable. As he attempts to define the parameters of “personality,” Mayer is prone to expanding the idea into ambiguous territory. But what is innovative here is his focus on personality as a social skill, an interaction between self and environment that manifests not just through interpersonal relationships but across our collective society, including our legal system. Mayer’s new theory of personal intelligence is a welcome starting point for analyzing “how people think about themselves and one another.” (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“Mayer fills his book with ingenious studies of how people judge others . . . [and] confines himself to invariably stimulating insights backed by solid scientific research, so readers looking to understand the human condition will certainly enjoy this book.” —Kirkus

“Innovative . . . Mayer's new theory of personal intelligence is a welcome starting point for analyzing 'how people think about themselves and one another.'” —Publishers Weekly

“It's always exciting when an original psychological theory comes along, offering new perspectives on identity. In a crowded world where much depends on social interaction, such tools are irresistible…Mayer shines when recounting the history of psychology--colorfully detailing crucial studies, milestones, and observations.” —Spirituality & Health

“Mayer's book is a deep and intriguing read into how our personalities evolve from infancy to adulthood . . . Mayer's insights challenge us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be successful in our society. They underscore the importance of personality--how we learn to know ourselves and how we act on that understanding.” —Psychology Today

“I find Mayer's optimism heartening and his theory convincing: Strengthening personal intelligence could certainly improve communication and understanding in professional and personal relationships . . . I realized personal intelligence – though I've never called it that before – is key to reading about both fictional characters and real people.” —Concord Monitor

“Mayer makes his case for personal intelligence by synthesizing decades of scholarship, supporting it with examples of high achievers from Ludwig van Beethoven to the late Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, and suggesting how people can improve their own personal intelligence.” —UNH Magazine

“John D. Mayer has done so much to get us to think about human personality in new ways, from his theoretical models to his empirical research on emotional intelligence (on which I have been thrilled to collaborate). With Personal Intelligence, Mayer once again challenges us--arguing that there is a set of skills that may determine what sets successful people apart from those who seem oblivious to the needs and desires of those around them. He is a clear thinker and a beautiful writer, and his arguments compel us to broaden our understanding of what constitutes an intelligent individual.” —Peter Salovey, president and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology, Yale University

“This lively book vividly illustrates the importance of personality and the judgments we make of one another. John D. Mayer surveys a wide range of classic and up-to-the-minute modern research, along with engaging personal histories, to make a compelling case in support of his innovative theory of personal intelligence.” —David C. Funder, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, and author of The Personality Puzzle

“John D. Mayer takes us on a comprehensive journey through his theory of personal intelligence. Along the way, he shows just how vital personal intelligence is to understanding ourselves as well as navigating our social world. Making sense of others is an essential skill, and Personal Intelligence shows us how we use it, when we use it, and why it matters.” —Elaine Fox, director of the Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience and author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

Kirkus Reviews
There is more to brainpower than IQ, writes Mayer (Psychology/Univ. of New Hampshire; Personality: A Systems Approach, 2006, etc.) in this astute exploration of a different form of intelligence: the ability to understand the personalities of other human beings as well as our own. The "grand theorists" of the mind (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Henry Murray and Harry Stack Sullivan) delivered vivid insights from philosophy, literature, biology and their own observations, but it was only when subsequent generations of psychologists examined what people--not just a few patients--actually do that they discovered which insights made sense. Mayer fills his book with ingenious studies of how people judge others. We routinely decode faces, interpret motives and traits, and use these to guide our behavior. Successful judges of personal intelligence enjoy better relationships and more success in life. Poor judges are worried, manipulative, insecure and generally disagreeable. Essential to personal intelligence is the ability to know thyself, a preoccupation of philosophers since the dawn of history. Everyone, the author included, urges us to look inward, but good research reveals that introspection has its limits. It's accurate for emotions ("I'm angry") but less so for abilities ("I'm smart"). Perhaps too much self-knowledge depends on what others think of us: our reputations. This is no small matter since misinterpreting one's own traits leads to mistakes in evaluating others'. "My wish," writes the author, "is that you will feel enriched by seeing how we all use personal intelligence to reason about ourselves and others, and that you will come to appreciate this set of abilities in a new way." Those looking to win friends and influence people should turn to Dale Carnegie and his cheerful disciples. Mayer confines himself to invariably stimulating insights backed by solid scientific research, so readers looking to understand the human condition will certainly enjoy this book.

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Personal Intelligence

The Power of Personality and How it Shapes Our Lives

By John D. Mayer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 John D. Mayer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70899-3



During the course of our day, we might pass a group of men in athletic gear in the morning walking toward the neighborhood gym and bantering about baseball. Other people on the same sidewalk look like they don't want to talk to anyone until they've had their first cup of coffee. There are gregarious people we meet on our commute to work who will stop and talk to anyone who will listen, and less sociable folks who pass us by, eyes straight ahead. At work, we receive a hard-to-decipher e-mail from a colleague who has trouble expressing herself—we'll speak with her to find out what she needs. Buying lunch, we walk to the register, where the owner knows most of his patrons' names and orders by memory. In the afternoon, we negotiate a timeline with a client we are getting to know, wondering if she's married and has children. By the time we pack up our belongings and head home for dinner, we've responded to and juggled countless personalities, and there are still more to come, in slightly more removed fashion as we discuss the characters in the day's news: an actor who ranted about his costar and was fired from his show, or a baseball player who started a charity.

Later, as we fall asleep, we think of these people and we may think of ourselves, too—what we did well or might have done better, why people have acted in the ways they did and what they might do next. And it continues: if we were to wake up briefly a few hours later, and glimpse the light on in the home across the way, we might wonder, "What are they up to so late at night?" We can't help ourselves from being so inquisitive. We are naturally curious about what people do.

Our curiosity is no accident. We have evolved to try to understand one another so as to anticipate how others might behave. And to understand other people, we draw on our unique capacity to reason about personality, an ability that is a legacy of our evolutionary past and is augmented by our everyday learning. Our ability to reason this way serves as an inner guidance system that helps us navigate the people and situations we encounter and to attain our goals in life, be they to find a pleasing lunch mate or to choose a more inspiring direction to our life. And some people are especially talented when it comes to understanding personalities. The idea that people differ in the ability to understand one another isn't new, but the intelligence I will describe provides an explanation for why we think about other people and how we reason well about others, and draws together a diverse set of findings in personality psychology that haven't been examined together before—and, in some cases, were not even regarded as related. For example, scientific reports indicate that people vary in specific skills such as decoding faces, judging traits and motives, and demonstrating self-knowledge. I argue throughout this book that these skills—although they may seem diverse—mostly arise from a common ability. I call this ability "personal intelligence."

"Personal intelligence," as I mean it here, is shorthand for an intelligence about personality, and in order to unpack the idea I'll begin with a look at some present-day views of intelligence more generally. I'll use the term "mental ability" to refer to an individual's capacity to carry out a given psychological task, such as defining a word or putting together a puzzle. An intelligence represents a group of related abilities—a person's mental capacity to correctly solve a broad set of related problems of a particular type that our society recognizes as being of importance. Scientists consider these abilities to form an intelligence when the problems involved are valued, when only some individuals can reliably solve them, and when the ability leads to specific accomplishments. For example, the intelligence named "verbal comprehension" (or just "verbal") contributes to a wide range of skills, from understanding the definitions of individual words to recognizing the meaning of a written passage; verbal intelligence helps us communicate clearly with one another and, in so doing, helps us accomplish tasks from texting a friend to communicating with our team members at work. By contrast, our ability to remember nonsense words from a randomly sequenced list is a narrower enterprise—it may be one of the many abilities that contribute to verbal intelligence—but it is insufficiently meaningful to be considered an intelligence by itself.

To identify a specific type of intelligence, researchers carefully analyze what human beings do in a given setting and then try to identify the abilities that have characteristics in common. For verbal comprehension, the abilities include word knowledge (vocabulary), sentence comprehension, and certain forms of logical reasoning. To identify this, or any other intelligence, scientists engage in a process much like reverse engineering: they look at the problems people solve, and then try to figure out the abilities needed to find the correct solution.

Among the most successful investigations of how people solve problems was Alfred Binet's analysis, in 1905, of how certain students thrived in school. In 1904, the French government appointed a commission of educators and scientists to develop an objective means of distinguishing students who could learn in the nation's classrooms from those who were, in the language of the period, "mentally subnormal" and required special help. Binet was appointed a member of the commission and was one of those who took on the task for the government.

Binet deduced from his observations of classrooms that successful students paid attention, followed instructions, imitated others, understood language, and remembered what they learned, among other abilities. To see if these were the key ingredients to school achievement, Binet, along with his colleague Theodore Simon, created a mental test with questions that evaluated a child's abilities to perform in those areas. The 1905 version of Binet and Simon's test, for example, contained one set of questions for which a test examiner asked a child to "do as I do." Then the examiner clapped his hands together, put them in the air, and raised his foot. If the child followed the instructions and imitated the acts, she passed that part of the test. For another part of the test, the examiner asked questions such as "Where is your head?" "Where is your nose?" and "Where is your eyebrow?" and prompted the child to point to them. The examiner assessed vocabulary specifically by asking for the definitions of words ("What is a dog?") and assessed memory by asking the child to repeat sentences of varied lengths.

Binet's test did indeed predict which students did well in school, indicating that he had successfully analyzed a core set of abilities necessary to achieve in that setting. Some critics pointed out, however, that Binet's instrument was dominated by items that required test-takers to understand words and language; and included only a few questions that inquired as to visual and spatial thinking, let alone questions about the children's social behavior. Binet and Simon nonetheless had brought about a remarkable advance, but one that had only begun to assess intelligence. With the benefit of hindsight, researchers would describe the area of ability that these early measures assessed as focused on verbal-comprehension intelligence.

As Binet was developing his tests, Charles Spearman, who in 1906 would become the University of London's first psychology professor, published a scientific article arguing that there might just be one general intelligence; Spearman had administered his own mental tests to students and he observed that the brightest children were able to answer most of the questions correctly, whereas the intellectually disabled children had difficulties with nearly all the test questions. If Spearman was correct that a given person's different problem-solving abilities were either all high, all low, or all in the middle, then Binet's test could be an adequate indicator of general intelligence even though it focused mostly on verbal reasoning, because a person's verbal IQ would reflect his other mental abilities as well. Spearman's observation was, generally speaking, correct, and still today, researchers regard verbal-comprehension intelligence, even by itself, as highly predictive of a pupil's grades in school, as well as predictive of success on the job.

Although Spearman regarded intelligence as mostly general, other researchers of the time observed that many people were better in some areas of problem-solving than others. In 1920, another intelligence expert, E. L. Thorndike, concluded based on his studies: "The primary fact is that intelligence is not one thing but many." If there were multiple intelligences, then what lay beyond verbal IQ? Writing in Harper's Monthly on the virtues of studying people's problem-solving, Thorndike introduced his idea of social intelligence as "... the ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls—to act wisely in human relations." This intelligence, he continued, "... shows itself abundantly ... on the playground, in barracks and factories and salesroom ..."—and it had its start "in the nursery."

After briefly raising his idea, however, Thorndike returned to his central topic of the virtues of psychological testing, leaving social intelligence in its infancy. Other psychologists rushed in to nurture the castaway; they suggested that social intelligence included the "ability to get along with others," possessing "social technique," and comprehending the personalities of others. The overall picture of social intelligence was as if seen through a kaleidoscope—colorful in its design, but fragmented. And, even several decades later, psychologists remained more comfortable with Binet's test, with its clear emphasis on verbal intelligence, and paid scant attention to alternative IQs.

David Wechsler finally coaxed psychologists to explore the precincts beyond verbal reasoning in 1939. Wechsler was a psychologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and he faced a practical problem at the time. The city's police department, courts, and social agencies were sending his way recent immigrants to the United States who had engaged in a number of offenses, including vagrancy, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, and other petty crimes—and the authorities requested that Wechsler and his colleagues evaluate whether these new arrivals had any psychological difficulties, including intellectual disabilities.

These immigrants' native tongues ranged from Croatian to Yiddish. Any of these newcomers might have exhibited verbal intelligence in their homeland, but they were in a city that now offered them scant opportunity to employ their native language on the job or outside of their communities. Fortunately, intelligence researchers had already raised the point that people solved nonverbal problems all the time as well as verbal ones. Among these non-English-speakers would be found master carpenters who could plan, measure, and fit together wooden pieces into exquisite inlaid designs, garment workers who could stitch together intricate fashionable patterns, and mechanics who knew how to disassemble, repair, and reassemble motors and generators. Wechsler viewed such expert problem-solvers as able to perceive and understand the visual patterns of objects, and he proposed the existence of a perceptual-organizational intelligence to account for their reasoning.

To test his idea, Wechsler created a new measure of intelligence for which test-takers were asked to identify patterns in pictures, and to assemble puzzle pieces into designs. When Wechsler studied English-speakers and compared their verbal intelligence with that of their perceptual-organizational intelligence, the two were highly correlated: if a person was good verbally, she was also good at perceptual-organization tasks (and vice versa), generally speaking. And if a person was poor at one skill area, she was poor at the other. Perceptual-organizational IQ, in other words, provided a reasonable alternative to verbal intelligence as an indicator of people's overall mental ability. Practically speaking, it meant we could test for perceptual-organizational intelligence rather than verbal intelligence among non-English-speaking test-takers. The perceptual-organizational IQ could then be used as an estimate for the person's overall intelligence.

To many psychologists, the strong relationship between verbal and perceptual-organizational intelligences provided more support for the existence of a general capacity to carry out abstract thought, and to them, one number—g, for general intelligence—approximated by an overall IQ score, was enough to gauge the overall sharpness of a person's intellect. If, on the other hand, intelligences were multiple —articulated in different areas of thinking—then a person's intellect would be more like a Swiss Army knife with multiple components, some of which may be particularly sharp and others that may be a bit rusty or even broken off. Then we would need more than one IQ score, one for each function.

Many people are baffled by the claim that a general intelligence could exist. They raise objections such as "I know I can critique a literary classic with great skill, but I'm not good at all when it comes to math," or "I am good at playing the piano but I'm really not much of a reader." Yet advocates of general intelligence argue that we all have similar natural abilities across diverse areas but, for reasons of personal motivation and experiences at home or in school, we become discouraged and end up being "no good" at a given subject despite our original potential.

Scientists who adhere to the g position ask us to think about people all along the intelligence spectrum. People with severe intellectual disability—typically with IQs of 20 to 35—have impaired language and need to rely on gestures and facial expressions to communicate, and are unable to take care of themselves generally. At these levels of intellectual function, they are hardly able to perform on a children's intelligence test at levels much above chance. At the opposite extreme, people with exceedingly high levels of intelligence—with IQs above 170 or so—are likely to perform above average at everything from analyzing prose to solving complex equations and to acquire new concepts at a lightning-fast clip. Psychologists who witness these extremes are likely to accept general intelligence as a reasonable index of how well a person will function in intellectually demanding environments. At the middle range of intelligence—which includes most of us—our differences in skill across areas of problem-solving are plainer. Our friend's claim that he can handily pick up a new language but is terrible at math seems reasonable to us. But intelligence researchers may remind us that, against the backdrop of the full range of intellect, our friend's abilities are solidly somewhat above average: his language skills, though excellent, fall short of those with the highest IQs, and his math skills, though relatively weak, far exceed the skills of people who are intellectually disabled.

Many clinical psychologists regularly conducted mental assessments of people with severe intellectual disabilities and people with tremendous potential; their professional experiences predisposed them to be natural allies of the general-intelligence position. Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, general intelligence, and the verbal-comprehension and perceptual-organizational intelligences that were a part of it, seemed sufficient for most practical purposes, and indeed predicted important life outcomes. From this perspective, any new IQ was unnecessary—it would be just more of the same. Then Howard Gardner came along and picked up the argument for multiple intelligences once again.

Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, hoped to revise and broaden how people looked at human abilities. He caught the public's imagination in the early 1980s with a book entitled Frames of Mind that proposed seven intelligences. Gardner argued that intelligences were identified in part because societies had a need for problem-solvers in a given area. For example, spatial intelligence was crucial in some societies, including

the Puluwat people of the Caroline Islands in the South Seas. In the case of Puluwats, the highly developed skill is that of navigation, one found in a minority of individuals who are allowed to sail canoes. Within this well-trained population, there occurs a flowering of skills that has filled Western-trained navigators with awe ... To navigate among the many islands in their vicinity, the Puluwats must recall the points or directions where certain stars rise and set around the horizon.


Excerpted from Personal Intelligence by John D. Mayer. Copyright © 2014 John D. Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John D. Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and a key innovator in intelligence research. He has written more than 125 scientific articles, books, and psychological tests, including the internationally known Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT™). He has lectured around the world and has appeared on NPR and BBC-TV. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. He lives in New Hampshire.
John D. Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and is a key innovator in intelligence research. He has written more than 125 scientific articles, books, and psychological tests, including the internationally known Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT™). He has lectured around the world, has blogged for Psychology Today, and has appeared on NPR and BBC TV. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Time, and The Washington Post. He lives in New Hampshire.

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