Being attuned to one’s intuition, dreams, and thoughts is key to personal understanding, like a door suddenly cracking open just enough to let in light to a darkened room.
Psychology professor John Mayer is an 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. He has lectured around the world and appeared on National Public Radio and BBC-TV. His work has been covered in the New York Times, Time, Washington Post, and New Republic.
Yet, he had begun to think that his research on emotional intelligence wasn’t comprehensive enough. He grappled with three concepts that he saw as somehow related: one concerned self-knowledge, a second concerned how personality functioned, and a third concerned the traits of “high-functioning” people. And then one summer morning he literally woke up to a major insight:
"I realized that to understand ourselves, to perceive others accurately, and to do well, we just might draw on a group of everyday rules of thumb about how personality operated — and people likely varied in their ability to use those rules. If such a mental capacity existed — that joined self-knowledge, reading people, and functioning well — then perhaps thinkers who studied those different areas all were drawing from the same evolved ability to reason; perhaps all of them were drawing on personal intelligence."
In Mayer’s new book, Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), the reader begins a journey with Mayer to uncover the history of personality research and proceeds to the shaping of a framework for a new theory of learning—personal intelligence.
The book, which Mayer’s longtime colleague, Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, describes as “beautifully written,” seamlessly weaves anthropology, history, literature, stories of individuals, case studies, and recent psychological research, including the latest in neuroscience. Mayer builds a compelling and well-supported narrative about this new discipline, personal intelligence. But surprisingly, despite his intuitive moment, at first Mayer wasn’t sure it even existed. And so he thought, ‘Why not test it?’
Does it exist?
“It’s big job to establish an ability or intelligence. These are huge projects,” says Mayer. “It’s much easier to develop a test that just asks someone ‘how outgoing are you?’ By comparison, writing problems to assess a mental ability such as personal intelligence is a major endeavor. I knew I needed some colleagues to help develop the test.”
Mayer called on David Caruso, a psychologist with training in testing and test development, and coauthor with Mayer and Salovey of the emotional intelligence test. With Caruso on board, Mayer enlisted the formidable data skills of A. T. Panter, a quantitative psychologist at the L.L. Thurstone Psychometric Laboratory of the University of North Carolina.
“When I presented this idea to them, I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if this exists or not,’” recalls Mayer. “They weren’t entirely convinced, but thought it would be fun to investigate. When the first results came back, we all were a bit surprised it worked and that yes, this might exist. But, it could’ve come back differently.”
The trio developed the Test of Personal Intelligence (TOPI) around a core group of items that test different areas of reasoning.
“The TOPI is designed as an aptitude test,” says Mayer. “But as we learn more about personal intelligence the test helps us discover what we might want to teach about this kind of knowledge.”
Mayer understands the general antipathy to testing. “As a society, we experience a lot of high-stakes testing that may determine whether or not someone gets into college or gets a job,” says Mayer. “However, I believe that these kinds of psychological tests can be of high quality and provide very valuable information. They are powerful tools up to a point. But with testing, we must never forget that interpersonal connection.”
A strong liberal arts background informs Mayer’s work. As a college student, he took on a double major in creative writing and literature, and drama. He managed to take three psychology courses too and soon realized that he was more interested in the dynamics of actors and writers than the putting on of plays. Eventually, this led to his Ph.D. in psychology.
Throughout his book, Mayer introduces an amazing cast of characters whose stories, found in biographies, memoir, articles, and research, illustrate the power of personal intelligence. These individuals include celebrities such as Oprah and Donald Trump, newspaper owner Karen Graham of the Washington Post, fisher and author Linda Greenlaw, to a sampling of the thousands of couples married randomly by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Here are few examples from his book.
To account for the earliest development of personal intelligence, Mayer cites the work of Robin I. M. Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist. Dunbar points out that about 600,000 years ago, most primate groups were limited to about thirty members. But as the groups grew larger, selective pressure favored those with bigger brains. To keep track of one another, Dunbar imagines that these ancient humans began talking about what members of the group were up to. In short, they began to gossip and so were able to identify who was trustworthy, hardworking, or skilled. And, Dunbar argues, this enabled them to better control their social environment, a smart survival tactic.
In the chapter on personal intelligence in adulthood, Mayer identifies a characteristic that one wouldn’t expect to isolate, namely, grit.
He writes, “…outside challenges may demand more of us than we had imagined. Economic disruptions and threadbare social nets may especially call on our energies...” Mayer cites a study by Angela Duckworth and others that studied grit among first-year West Point cadets and other groups. The test items that measure grit reflect a freedom from distractibility. Grit predicted the success of cadets, especially through that first grueling summer. And, interestingly, grit is also what distinguished successful middle-schoolers in spelling competitions—those who were willing to devote the most hours to practice succeeded.
Mayer laughs when queried about grit. “I’m not saying that people should absolutely have grit,” he explains. “I’m just explaining how it works. I believe people can decide what strengths are most important for their own goals.”
Indeed, Mayer’s book is not prescriptive. Rather as he explains, it’s a guide to becoming more self-aware in order to create a better life story for oneself. His book’s dedication says it best:
“To those of us who are confused and who seek direction; to the friends, neighbors, and teachers who guide us with sensitivity; and to all of us who are captivated by the mystery of who we are”