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Is Personal Intelligence Important in the Classroom?

Interview with John D. Mayer, author of "Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives"

personal intelligence
We can define intelligence as a complex intellectual capacity that empower humans to think, acquire knowledge, characterize perception, consciousness, self-awareness, volition, and understand principles, truths, facts or meanings. According to John D Mayer’ theory, personal intelligence allows us to reason both about ourselves and about other people


We can define intelligence as a complex intellectual capacity that empower humans to think, acquire knowledge, characterize perception, consciousness, self-awareness, volition, and understand principles, truths, facts or meanings.

 To learn more about intelligence, and to understand students’ different cognitive abilities, we interviewed Dr. John Mayer, author of the book, Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives, and Professor of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Mayer has published over 120 articles, many books, and psychological tests related to personality psychology, emotional intelligence, integrative models of personality, and the effects of personality in an individual’s life.

Dr. Mayer has also served on the editorial boards of Psychological Bulletin, the Journal of Personality, and Social Psychology, and he has been an Individual National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University. In recent times, Mayer has focused on a broader intelligence, which he calls Personal intelligence. In his book, Mayer describes the theory and the research behind it, for educated readers who don’t necessarily have a background in psychology.

In 1990 Dr. Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, and Mayer co-developed the principle of Emotional Intelligence which focused primarily on human emotion and healthy behavior. Their analysis, published in the journal Imagination, Cognition & Personality, has provided the foundation for other researchers in the field of psychology as Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Mayer and Salovey’s theory demonstrated to us that we have a wide range of intellectual abilities, and measurable emotional skills, that affect our own thinking and actions. After their first article, Dr. Mayer and Dr. Salovey published dozens of works on intelligence, including the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, MSCEIT.

john mayer

John “Jack” Mayer (Photo Lisa Nugent)

In 2008 Mayer wrote an article entitled Personal Intelligence, in which he suggested an existence of a new intelligence that focused on how people understand personalities, both ways, their own and the personalities of other people. In the article, published in the journal Imagination, Cognition & Personality, Dr. Mayer explains that we are naturally curious about the motivations and inner mechanisms of the people we interact with every day. 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.”   According to this theory, some of us are more talented and able to perceive what makes our friends, family, and coworkers, more motivated and successful than others.

Professor Mayer, what is Personal Intelligence and how is it different from Emotional Intelligence and from Multiple Intelligence?

 In our lab we are now thinking in terms of people-centered or people-focused intelligences versus thing-focused intelligences. Personal and emotional intelligences are both people-focused intelligences. Emotional intelligence focuses on reasoning about emotions; personal intelligence focuses on reasoning about personality more generally. We define personality as the organization of a person’s major psychological systems—motives and emotions, knowledge and intelligence, self-management, and action planning.

 The term “multiple intelligences” is generally not used by intelligence researchers (although they recognize this as part of H. Gardner’s theory), rather psychologists use the term “Broad intelligences” to refer to a group of somewhat discrete areas of mental abilities that are all related to general intelligence.”

As a teacher, I see the difference in students’ personalities as well as in their abilities to solve problems. In what ways can teachers be successful by focusing on Personal Intelligence?

 “In English classes, for example, teachers can ask about the personalities of the characters in stories and help students think about the different characters: Whether they are realistic, how their personalities help influence their behavior, and whether everyday people they know behave in the same or different ways.”

 If educators give more attention to students’ feelings, will it increase their learning?

 “There are a number of useful curriculum suggestions that appear on the website of the Consortium for social and emotional learning. A number of these curricula teach about emotions, personality (they often use the word “self” in place of personality), and social interactions. The CASEL website also has information about outcome research with such curricula.”

 Since we know that motivation is crucial in learning, what kind of activities do you recommend in a general classroom to motivate students and to enhance their thoughts?

 “Filomena, I’m not an expert in this area. Of course, I face such issues as a teacher myself, but I do not study the area.”

 What’s the best way to teach students to focus on their emotional intelligence?

 “I am not sure that we should teach students to focus on that. I would be more comfortable teaching students to focus on their personalities, which involve a balance of thought, feeling, motivation, and other human qualities. That said, in some instances, some people can benefit from a focus on emotional learning if they are interested and have never had the opportunity to learn much in the area.”

 Schools around the world are dealing with bullying  and cyber bullying. In your book, Personal Intelligence, you included ingenious studies of how people judge others. What skill or expertise is missing in today’s teachers that make them unable to solve the challenge of injustice we are facing?

 “I believe people often rush to judgment of one another and that, sometimes, it helps to stop and think “on what basis am I judging this behavior” and to ask the person who committed a troublesome act how it came about. At the same time, it is necessary to continue to enforce reasonable rules”.

 Students’ performance on tests are linked to teachers’ evaluations. According to your theory of personal intelligence, should Districts use a different method to measure the average passing rates of 65+ (of which all teachers are held responsible in NYS) for the English and Math Regents examination?

“As a ‘specialist’ in psychological measurement, and as a person who studies intelligences in general, apart from my work in emotional and personal intelligences, I believe that any linkage between student test performance and teacher evaluations has to be done thoughtfully and carefully, and that such linkages are not always done in a reasonable fashion.”

 Teachers in Italy are dealing with children of refugees and immigrants who arrive by the thousands daily from Syria, and other countries in crisis. What can they do to improve students’ learning? 

 “This is a very important question that, once again, I must ask to be excused from answering on the basis that I have no expertise, and not much experience, in this area.”


Here a video with Dr. Mayer, University of New Hampshire.


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