The Theory

Introduction and Definition

Since the beginning of recorded history, philosophers, political leaders, religious thinkers, physicians and dramatists all have expressed interest in the different kinds of personalities we encounter in our social worlds. A few of those thinkers also have expressed interest in how we understand our inner mental lives. Modern psychologists took up the understanding of other people and of ourselves as well, conducting empirical research into the different kinds of people we perceive, on the one hand, and into self-knowledge, on the other.

The theory of personal intelligence draws together contemporary research on self-knowledge and perceiving others, and synthesizes it in the idea that there exists an intelligence we all possess for reasoning about human personality–our own, and the personalities of others. (The theory was introduced in a 2008 academic journal article and has been further developed since).

Within the theory, personal intelligence is defined as:

“the capacity to reason about personality and to use personality and personal information to enhance one’s thoughts, plans, and life experience.” (Mayer, 2008, p. 209)

The Kinds of Problem-Solving Involved

According to the theory, people use their personal intelligence to solve problems in four broad areas. They focus on:

  • recognizing personally relevant information from introspection and from observing themselves and others,
  • forming that information into accurate models of personality,
  • guiding their choices by using personality-relevant information
  • systematizing their goals, plans, and life stories for good outcomes
    (Mayer, 2008, p. 215).

The initial 2008 statement of the theory was followed by a 2009 theoretical review that drew from the then-existing psychological literature to describe the skills of people presumed to be high versus low in personal intelligence. By carefully specifying the abilities involved in reasoning about personality, the 2009 review laid the groundwork for empirical tests of whether personal intelligence might actually exist.

Predictions of the Theory

The core of personal intelligence theory can be characterized by the following predictions:

  1. Problem-solving about personality is a universal preoccupation for human beings.
  2. There are diverse forms of problem-solving regarding personality and personality-related information.
  3. People differ in their abilities to solve problems about personality.
  4. A person’s ability to solve problems correctly  in one area of problem-solving about personality is related to the same individual’s ability to answer questions accurately in other areas of problem-solving about personality, even though the problems involved may seem quite different from one another.

The theory further emphasizes that although there are many ways to be successful without personal intelligence, people who are good at using their personal intelligence possess certain advantages over people who are less good at it, other things being equal. In particular, people higher in personal intelligence may make better decisions about themselves and other people.

Features of the Theory

Some associated features of the present theory of personal intelligence include:

  • a definition of personal intelligence that places the personality system at its center. The definition also focuses on the existence of information about and related to personality, such as cues to personality, goals, and the values with which we reason.
  • the proposal that there are substantial commonalities between our own and other people’s personalities, and that we often use a common set of rules to understand personality—no matter which personality we are focused on.
  • a drawing together of contemporary research findings from the field of personality psychology that organizes the lines of research according to how they help us understand one another.
  • specific, testable hypotheses that allow for its evaluation through empirical means. The theory has associated with it a set of successfully-developed assessments of reasoning that tap people’s ability in the area (see The Measurement).
Comparison to Other Approaches

The theory of personal intelligence represents a departure from other thinking in the area in several ways.

First, the theory is focused on individual differences in skill level. By comparison, a good deal (though not all) of contemporary research examines how accurately people understand one another on average. For example, certain researchers have examined how accurately people are able, on average, to identify whether a target person is narcissistic or friendly. Other researchers have investigated how accurately people are, on average, at estimating their own performance at solving logical puzzles.  Studies of average ability levels are very important; the theory of personal intelligence provides a complement to those findings by examining the ability that may contribute to people’s accurate performance at such tasks.

Second, according to the theory of personal intelligence, problem solving about self-knowledge and problem-solving about other people are viewed as drawing on similar reasoning processes: For example, recognizing the trait of extraversion in one’s own self involves many of the same skills required to recognize extraversion in other people.

Third, the theory proposes that people draw on a diverse set of abilities so as to understand personality. Despite the apparent dissimilarity among these abilities, the theory contends that they can be thought of as a unitary intelligence that helps individuals to  understand their own and others’ personalities.

Fourth, this theory, when compared with earlier thought, clearly defines a global ability—personal intelligence—and specifies the kinds of reasoning people use to solve problems about personality.  The theory is sufficiently clear and detailed that it has permitted researchers to construct psychological tests to examine whether an intelligence about personality really exists.

Fifth, the development of measurement instruments serves as a means of defining the areas of reasoning that make up personal intelligence, and what areas of reasoning are less clearly a part of the mental ability. For example, research indicates that understanding traits and knowing about goals are both part of personal intelligence as defined here. On the other hand, understanding vocabulary words in general is less closely related to the skill.

 Status of the Theory

The theory draws together and organizes a great amount of research from the areas of personality, developmental, clinical and evolutionary psychology, and from neuroscience. The predictions made by the theory are consistent with numerous research findings from those diverse areas of research.

The article, “Does Personal Intelligence Exist?” (Mayer, Panter & Caruso, 2012) reports evidence supporting the specific predictions about patterns of human problem solving that were made by the theory.

The book, Personal Intelligence presents the theory and the research from diverse fields which supports its predictions, illustrating many of the key concepts of personal intelligence with  case studies.

For more about the theory, use “The Theory” Menu to the right or bottom.