UNH professor develops personal intelligence theory

By Catie Hall
On March 18, 2014

While some remember their summer as mainly poolside lounging, John D. Mayer spent the summer of 2007 writing three different essays: One was about healthy personalities, another was about how to figure out who you are and a third about a topic he can't remember. But none of them were going anywhere. 

The University of New Hampshire psychology professor said he realized the problem. The three ideas he wrote about were all connected; they just needed to be combined.

"I was cycling back and forth among the three [essays] when I suddenly realized that this is all one problem," Mayer said. "I just have to admit that there could be a personal intelligence. And then all of these three are going to come together."

From the summer of 2007 until early 2014, when Mayer's book was published, a new psychological theory was born: the theory of personal intelligence, wherein Mayer tried to explain how our own personalities - and how much we understand ourselves - helps us interact with others. 

"We are all interested to some degree in the behavior of other people and our own behavior," Jayne Allen, a doctoral candidate working in Mayer's lab, said. "We wonder why we snapped at our friend, or why our new roommate never meets our gaze. The capacity to answer these types of questions comes from an ability called personal intelligence."

The book cover of Mayer's 300-page book, "Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How it Shapes our Lives," states, "Some of us are talented at perceiving what makes our friends, family and coworkers tick. Some of us are less so. Mayer ... shows how the most gifted 'readers' among us have developed 'high personal intelligence.'" 

"My present-day theory says, you know, if you understand personality in yourself, that helps you understand it in other people and vice versa," Mayer said. 

Not only does having a high level of personal intelligence mean that you can understand yourself and others better, but personal intelligence can be applied to various aspects of life. For example, according to Mayer's book, it can be applied to "making decisions with our personalities in mind" and "finding a satisfying life direction." 

"This intelligence allows us to reason about our own behavior and the behavior of others in ways that bring us successful relationships and satisfying lives," Allen said. 

In order to test his theory, Mayer took existing studies from diverse areas of psychology and examined them for his book. The studies include case and research studies conducted by other psychologists.

"So, some of [the studies] were in educational psychology, some of them were from developmental psychology, some from cognitive, some from neuro-psyche..." Mayer said. "What the book allowed me to do was to draw together - at a more leisurely pace and a more thorough pace - a lot of these studies from these different areas that were all related but hadn't been drawn together before. All related to problem solving about oneself and others."

Personal intelligence is not Mayer's first theory. In fact, Mayer's co-developed theory of emotional intelligence in 1990 launched him into considering what other intelligences could exist. 

"I started thinking about whether there was a broader intelligence that dealt with motivation, and with cognition, and with personal expressions and so forth," Mayer said. "But at that time, in 1990, a lot of academic psychologists didn't believe personality really mattered that much. They didn't believe that personalities were terribly consistent." 

In 1983, Mayer said that little was known about personality. By the time he published his theory on emotional intelligence in 1990 - entitled "Emotional Intelligence" - a lot more was known about personalities, but important pieces of the puzzle were still missing. 

According to Mayer, there are people who study self-knowledge, and people who study a person's ability to read others (i.e. in clinical trials). However, there are few theories that look at the connection between the two.

That's why Mayer calls personal intelligence an innovative theory. It almost acts like a binding agent for existing personality theories, specifically by measuring personal intelligence for the first time and taking what is known about a person and using it to relate to others.

While working to test his theory, Mayer has encountered some challenges. 

In the 1970s, psychologists did not believe that personality really existed or that it was consistent enough to be studied. The idea was so prevalent, Mayer said, that it persisted widely through the 1990s. Today, Mayer said there are still a few psychologists who hold these beliefs. 

Though not everyone may think personality can be measured to collect empirical data, Mayer is hard at work to prove otherwise.

"I'm able now to specify some of the exact problem solving that people use to truly understand themselves and other people," Mayer said. 

Mayer has written hundreds of test questions with David R. Caruso, Mayer's co-author on "Emotional Intelligence" and special assistant to the dean at Yale College and Abigail T. Panter, a quantitative psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina. 

Together, they have found that some problem solving questions have specific answers. The questions that do not seem to work, they scrap. When finished, they will combine all of their test questions for a personal intelligence test that will be used in research laboratories.

Mayer has sample tests on the web, as well as more a comprehensive test that was sent to several other research laboratories in the United States. A sample question asks, "A person is straightforward and modest. Most likely, she also could be described as: a) Valuing ideas and beliefs, b) Active and full of energy, c) Sympathetic to others and tender minded, or d) Self-conscious and more anxious than average."

According to a demonstration version of the test provided by Mayer, the answer is C because "research into traits indicates that people who are straightforward and modest are also likely to be more tender-minded and sympathetic to others, rather than hard-headed." 

In the end, those who can answer the questions seem to have a higher personal intelligence, Mayer said.

So, what's the point of measuring or knowing one's personal intelligence level? 

Perhaps it could be used simply to satisfy curiosity, as with an online IQ test. 

But for those in the psychological world, it could mean a lot more.

"I am interested in the processes behind [personal] intelligence - the cognitive strategies and episodic memories that people use when making decisions about someone else's personality," Allen said about her work in Mayer's lab. "I am also interested in successful self-management, and whether or not it is a skill that can be taught."

Bonnie Barlow, who also works in the Personality Laboratory with Mayer, is applying personal intelligence to other aspects of life. 

"At the moment, I am investigating the relationship between Personal Intelligence and creativity," Barlow said in an email. 

So far, Mayer said he believes personal intelligence exists. And he has high hopes for it. 

"If it exists," Mayer said, "it expands our notion of what it means to be human."


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