John D Mayer’s book, Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How it Shapes our Lives (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) provides a framework for an often vague concept.
Think about how you’d describe your best friend. Is she funny and smart, but prickly and introverted in certain situations? Before you congratulate yourself for nailing her personality, think again: wouldn’t that description apply equally to any number of people you know?
This is why the concept of personality – something so central to our lives – has posed a problem for psychologists and thinkers over the centuries. We might tell each other that at heart, people don’t change, providing a rationale for giving a person a second chance (or not); we may even pride ourselves on certain qualities we feel define us. But theorists would argue that each of us is a personality in flux, responding to the almost continual changes in our environments and circumstances. Think about how your usually garrulous colleague becomes quiet and thoughtful in board meetings, for instance, or how your sister became a lot less frivolous after a medical scare.
Mayer argues that our need to categorise and label people’s personalities has been driven by evolution. By identifying certain traits, we were able to discern which people might be able to help us in certain situations, who would be easiest to live with in communities and who could be trusted.
From this came his theory of personal intelligence. Mayer believes that, just as some people can develop the intuitiveness required to read others’ emotions and respond appropriately, others have the ability to read their peers’ traits. This makes it easier for them to interact and co-operate with them.
It’s not just our relationships with others that become easier when we have a good grasp of how their qualities and characteristics hang together. Our self knowledge is also enhanced – which, of course, makes us better able to manage our responses to other people.