Personality and Intelligence

Personality and IntelligenceDespite frequent (and ongoing) debates throughout the history of psychology, “personality” and “intelligence” continue to be two of the most popular and important concepts both in the formal scientific literature and in popular discussions of psychological phenomena. That is because both concepts refer to broad, powerful attributes of humans that are believed to underlie cognition, motivation, and behavior in many different settings. To the extent that such beliefs can be verified, psychology’s goals of understanding, predicting, and improving significant aspects of human behavior and development can be greatly facilitated through the use of these concepts.

Although personality and intelligence both provide useful ways of summarizing consequential individual differences in human functioning, they are not designed to answer the same kinds of questions. Personality focuses on “content” questions addressing the substance, organization, or meaning of a person’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions. Intelligence focuses on “effectiveness” questions that seek to determine how well people are functioning with respect to some internally or externally defined criterion.

The links between personality and intelligence are important for three reasons. First, there is considerable interest in determining whether certain personality dimensions, types, or patterns are associated with effective (intelligent) behavior in significant life contexts. Conversely, there is widespread concern about nonnormative personality characteristics that may impair or inhibit the capacity for intelligent behavior. Finally, there appears to be a growing realization that assessments of intelligence may be of little value if they do not take into account the goals and contexts organizing an individual’s personality.

The psychological literature is filled with studies addressing these issues. Most of these studies have been guided by a “nomothetic” approach in which all individuals are described using the same dimensions or categories (e.g., personality traits. primary abilities. diagnostic categories). Recently, however, a more complex way of conceptualizing the relationship between personality and intelligence has developed. This view suggests that the criteria for evaluating intelligence should vary from one person to the next, depending on each individual’s personality. This “idiographic” approach to understanding the relationship between personality and intelligence is manifested most prominently in conceptual frameworks emphasizing the importance of personal and social goals in defining the appropriate criteria for intelligence assessments (e.g., Cantor & Harlow, 1994; Ford, 1994). These frameworks, many of which point to the selective impact of life contexts and cultural settings in shaping personal and social goals, are on the cutting edge of theory and research on topics such as motivation, creativity, wisdom, and social and practical intelligence (Ford, 1992; Maciel, Heckhausen, & Baltes, 1994; Sternberg, 1985).

Psychometric Approaches to Personality and Intelligence: Dimensional Linkages

The most widely used but probably the least productive vehicle for understanding the relationship between personality and intelligence has been the traditional psychometric approach. This nomothetic conceptualization assumes that there are a relatively small number of trait or ability dimensions underlying most aspects of intellectual and social behavior. Once these qualities have been identified, multivariate correlational studies can be designed to identify areas of overlap between personality and ability profiles. Many such studies have been conducted both within and across the domains of personality and intelligence.

One problem with this approach is that it is not clear if consensus can be reached about the fundamental dimensions to be used for describing and assessing personality and intelligence. Prominent trait frameworks within the personality literature range from the “Big Three” (Eysenck, 1991) and “Big Five” (McCrae & Costa, 1997) models of personality to Cattell’s Sixteen Personality Factor taxonomy (Cattell, 1971). Although there is substantial overlap in these frameworks, there are also significant remaining disagreements about which traits should be regarded as truly fundamental (Eysenck, 1991). Similarly, psychometric theories of intelligence range from frameworks with one or two factors (“g” or general intelligence; fluid and crystallized intelligence) to models with anywhere from a half dozen to over 100 primary abilities (e.g., multiple intelligences; Guilford’s Structure of Intellect) (Sternberg, 1982). Given the lengthy but still uncertain history of theory and research flowing from efforts to identify underlying trait and ability dimensions, settling on a particular “best” way of describing personality and intelligence for all humans does not seem to be a likely outcome. It is also not clear that such a consensus would be desirable given the diversity of attributes, capabilities, and challenges faced by people in different settings and cultures.

Moreover, regardless of the number of categories used, most efforts to link psychometrically derived indices of personality and intelligence have yielded few correlations of statistical and theoretical Significance (Zeidner, 1995). Consistent with this result, psychometric theorists’ typical answer to the challenge of trying to capture the variance associated with both domains simultaneously has been simply to add or incorporate intelligence into their preferred personality taxonomy. In short, describing people on generalized trait or ability dimensions has not yet proven to be a productive way of understanding the relationship between personality and intelligence.

Psychoeducational and Psychopathology Approaches to Personality and Intelligence: Categorical Linkages

Personality scholars and professionals in applied fields such as special and remedial education and clinical, counseling, and school psychology have also tended to adopt a nomothetic approach to understanding the relationship between personality and intelligence. However, in doing so, they have focused less on universal dimensions and more on recurring cognitive-emotional-behavioral (personality) “types” or diagnostic categories that describe particular subsets of people with shared characteristics. This approach has been vastly more useful than the psychometric approach in terms of practical applications, although it too has been limited by the fact that the classification schemes generally do not vary from one individual to the next.

School-based professionals, for example, typically work with standardized diagnostic categories that describe broad, prototypical patterns of social, emotional, and intellectual functioning that cut across the domains of personality and intelligence (Braden, 1995). Such categories typically describe, either implicitly or explicitly, ways in which intellectual deficits may impact personality functioning or ways in which personality deficits may inhibit intelligent functioning. For example, students classified as mentally retarded or learning disabled may be seen as having limitations or vulnerabilities that are manifested not only in academic or vocational tasks, but also in settings likely to influence personality development in fundamental ways (e.g., through opportunities for social learning with peers or through the impact of stereotypic beliefs about individuals with particular kinds of disabilities). The cumulative impact of these experiences may, in turn, facilitate or constrain intellectual development and the use of existing intellectual capabilities. Conversely, students with emotional or attentional disorders may be regarded as having the potential to function well in academic settings, but only if high-amplitude arousal processes (e.g., anger, anxiety, depression) or the thought patterns underlying such arousal can be properly regulated (e.g., through medication or behavioral interventions).

Clinical and counseling psychologists have also been concerned with various forms of psychopathology that can impair or interfere with capabilities for effective functioning. In this approach, psychopathology is most often defined in terms of symptom clusters (syndromes) that are associated with agreed-on diagnostic labels. These syndromes reflect broad patterns of thought, emotion, perception, and action (Le., personality patterns) that frequently lead to unintelligent behavior or that serve as powerful obstacles to the development of more effective behavior patterns (Endler & Summerfeldt, 1 995). Such categories include paranoid, schizoid, antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive, and passive-aggressive personality disorders, as well as mood disorders of various kinds.

Goal-Based Approaches to Personality and Intelligence: Motivational Linkages

In this more idiographic conceptualization, personality and intelligence are linked primarily by an individual’s “personal goals” (i.e., thoughts about desired or undesired futures) and the choices and investments that follow from efforts to accomplish those goals (Cantor & Harlow, 1994; Ford, 1992, 1994; Sternberg & Spearswerling, 1998). Scholars adopting this approach have generally focused more on competence development and personal growth than on personality or intellectual dysfunction, although this approach is also highly applicable to the latter set of phenomena (e.g., Ford, 1995).

A central premise of this approach is that it makes sense to assess effective functioning (intelligence) in some domain only if an individual is pursuing significant goals in that domain. Goal choices may be self-directed (based on personal interests and priorities) or contextually directed (based on contextual or cultural opportunities and demands), but in either case, intelligence reflects the attainment of personally meaningful goals within important life contexts.

Personality becomes a significant part of this way of understanding human intelligence when it is defined primarily in terms of a person’s repertoire of core goals or life pursuits. From this perspective, the core of an individual’s personality is represented by the goals he or she pursues on a recurring basis in everyday life and the ways in which the individual goes about trying to accomplish those goals. The thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions associated with the pursuit of meaningful goals are assumed to be represented in stable cognitive constructions known as “schemas” (Cantor & Harlow, 1994; Ford, 1992). Authentic assessments of intelligence can be designed by focusing on the effectiveness of these schemas in guiding thought and action over time and across contexts.

Although goal-based analyses of personality and intelligence are appropriate for all age groups, the potential utility of conceptualizing personality and intelligence in this manner is especially compelling for adolescents and adults (Ford, 1994; Maciel et al., 1994). As life paths diverge, there is an increasing need to understand what it is that people are trying to accomplish before drawing conclusions about how intelligent they are or how intelligent they might be in a particular setting. Ford (1994) has introduced the concept of “personal intelligence” to explain how one might go about conducting an idiographic assessment of intelligence based on this view. In his Assessment of Personal Intelligence template, progress within all of an individual’s major goal domains is assessed on seven different aspects of effective functioning (i.e., breadth of general goal-relevant knowledge, depth of specialized knowledge, performance accomplishments, automaticity or ease of functioning, skilled performance under challenge, generative flexibility, and speed of learning or behavior change).

Sternberg and Spear-Swerling’s (1998) concept of “personal navigation,” with its emphasis on self-direction, flexibility, and overcoming obstacles, also provides a useful vehicle for advancing goal-based models of personality and intelligence. Unlike most concepts in psychology, personal navigation simultaneously emphasizes the contributions of both the person and the environment to the content and effectiveness of a person’s functioning. Moreover, rather than focusing on the stable, enduring aspects of personality and intelligence (e.g., mental abilities and personality traits or syndromes), the concept of personal navigation emphasizes the potential for significant change in what people do and how well they do it. Analogous to a game of Scrabble, personal navigation reflects the need to adapt to changing circumstances and to make the most out of one’s current and potential future opportunities. With the right combination of motivation, skill, and luck, it is always possible to build new capabilities and accomplishments on the foundation of personality and intelligence that has developed throughout one’s life.


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