Personality Decoded: An Interview With Dr. John D Mayer


Dr. John D Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and has had his blog “The Personality Analyst” on Psychology Today for over 10 years. His article with Dr. Peter Salovey in 1990 on emotional intelligence is significant in that it laid the foundation for future research on the topic. He also contributed to the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, and has also written books on personality and personal intelligence.

The Interview

First of all, thanks so much for your time. I loved reading through your Psychology Today blog, “The Personality Analyst.” What inspired you to study personality and emotional intelligence?

Thank you, in the 1980s I believed that there might exist intelligences beyond those commonly studied. I had been thinking about what they might be and, based on the reading and studying I had done, emotional intelligence (the first of the two I helped to introduce) seemed a likely candidate (see my 1990 article with Peter Salovey entitled “Emotional Intelligence” (various copies available via Google Scholar). Moreover, if EI existed, it appeared to me it would have certain characteristics that would render it helpful for psychologists to study.

You wrote on the book, “Personality: A Systems Approach” can you share a bit about what’s in it and who it’s for?

That is a college textbook organized according to my personality systems framework. The personality systems framework is a new more integrated and contemporary way to organize the field of personality and the work within, and was designed to update the more traditional approaches to teaching the field (that view the personality system from a succession of theoretical perspectives). For that reason, I thought the field could benefit from having a more contemporary representation of theories and research of today—the textbook provides that alternative. The 2nd Edition is being brought out by Rowman & Littlefield this July/August.

In your article “Personality Described“, you noted that one common misperception about personality psychology is that the main goal is studying individual differences, while the usual process is recognizing universal features of human nature and how people vary on them. After researching personality for a few years, I too realized that many personality traits, like narcissism and extroversion, are on a sort of spectrum/scale. Is this true with all personality traits, or are any just black and white?

Most personality psychologists today view many aspects of an individual’s personality as described along continua or dimensions, such as the narcissism you mention, and extraversion, and including, for example, also emotional and personal intelligences. Most traits are represented (mathematically) as continua (also referred to as dimensions or factors).

You noted a study that shows our key personality traits have both advantages and disadvantages. Is it possible to maximize the pros while avoiding or minimizing the cons?

I believe so, yes. People who guide themselves toward personal growth try to do just that: To cultivate the positive sides of their traits and to minimize the downside.

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Expanding off my prior question; how accurately do we know what our best and worst traits are? For example, someone who is insecure may underestimate themselves, while someone who is egotistical may overestimate their abilities.

This varies by trait: People are often pretty good judges of their extraversion or their happiness, because the first is highly visible and the second can be directly felt. People are much less accurate about their mental abilities, however, because you often need to understand an area fairly well before you can evaluate ability in the area; self-estimates also are often thrown off, as you mentioned by high or low self-esteem.

Do you believe there is a science-based “ideal” personality, or is that more of an opinion that varies from person to person?

People across the globe share in common certain values and I believe we can fairly say that ideal personalities are those that help promote both an individual’s and society’s wellbeing. That is, however a matter of both of my opinion and of the values I hold.

Is personality something we can consciously change or otherwise alter?

Yes, it takes time and persistence, but the research is pretty clear on this matter: Many personality traits can be influenced.

How can we learn more about our own personalities?

Monitor ourselves, ask others for feedback, get professional assistance in the form of psychological assessments (i.e., taking psychological tests and receiving feedback).

Do you have any additional resources for those who may want to learn more about this topic?

My book on personal intelligence goes over many of these ideas. There are number of other books by other psychologists that can be helpful.

If someone wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?

That depends on what the person wishes to contact me about. Basic research information can be found on several websites I maintain including:

My lab, at:

My work in personal intelligence (and book): The aforementioned lab website and, and the textbook at

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