Behaving out of character

Personality and Intelligence
May 19, 1995

At first blush this appears to be a book whose time has surely come. Real strides have been made in the study of human intelligence since the endeavour faltered and all but foundered on the theoretical vacuity of factor analysis and the apparent moral degeneracy of anyone interested in "IQ" following the Burt "scandal". The debate over how many "factors" contribute to individual differences in intelligence (one "general" factor according to Charles Spearman, eight "primary" factors according to Louis Thurstone, and perhaps as many as 150 specific factors according to J. P. Guilford) appeared to be an exercise in futility given that IQ test data are equally compatible with these widely disparate solutions. The charge that Sir Cyril Burt fabricated his twin data to support his own prejudices on the origins of individual differences sounded the death knell for the study of IQ in mainstream scientific psychology. The feeling that the average scientist/psychologist would need an impossibly long barge-pole to become involved with the study of intelligence was only reinforced by the association of IQ with the political debate over race and education in the United States.

The introduction of information-processing psychology to the study of individual differences in intelligence, pioneered by Robert J. Sternberg, the first author of this volume, gave a much-needed scientific shot in the arm to the study of intelligence. The central computer metaphor of information-processing psychology introduced a hygienic, non-emotional and mechanistic way of retackling the problem of intelligence. Happily, it also allowed a rapprochement between two fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of intelligence. It allowed us to think of hardware (biological) constraints on human abilities, while at the same time acknowledging that software differences (learned strategies), influenced by differential experience and perhaps even cultural values, also contribute to intelligent problem-solving.

Personality research seemed to suffer similarly from the dead hand of multifarious factor analytic solutions. In the late 1960s Walter Mischel, among others, cast doubt on the existence of such an entity as personality, arguing that behaviour is controlled by the immediate situation and the experience of other situations rather than by some kind of trait based disposition to behave in consistent ways across all manner of situations. Lately, however, "personality" has made a come-back. The debate between the Eysenckian three-factor structure (extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism) and the more recent big five (extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness) now rages in the literature. Much of the reason for this change of heart is the resurgence of behavioural genetics that has demonstrated that there is a considerable genetic contribution to these factors, giving them a reality beyond psychometrics as intrinsic human dispositions.

Now all this means that there has been a resurgence of scientific interest and research in the fields of intelligence and personality and such a resurgence may merit a book that attempts to "interface" the two. Yet this book palpably fails to provide such an interface and, if anything, threatens to detract from the main scientific endeavour of building coherent theories.

It is not that the chapters in this book are uninteresting, nor that they are unscholarly or poorly written. Indeed, they are, in the main, extremely rich in reviews, cogently argued and easily understood. The problem is that they are not about intelligence, they are not about personality and they only occasionally touch on the "interface" between the two.

The reader is left asking the question: does this book aid our understanding of either construct and how they interact? I am afraid not. What is presented is largely a range of papers on the effect of culture and context on "intelligent" behaviour, and the book can be seen as a development of Sternberg's idea of a cultural intelligence. A central idea is that intelligent behaviour is adaptive and what constrains this adaptation are cultural norms and individual differences in both intelligence and personality. The chapters by Nick Haslam and Jonathon Baron and by Anna Maciel, Jutta Heckhausen and Paul Baltes, on prudence and wisdom respectively, provide particularly good examples of this. However, as Peter Salovey and Paul Mayer point out in their final review chapter, by defining intelligence as adaptive we require its measurement to be culture-bound, which in turn requires that there is some agreement about what is adaptive in a particular cultural context - and there is no such agreement.

The main message can be summarised as follows: how intelligence is expressed (what abilities are manifested) may be influenced by personality. This hardly seems profound and much of the supporting argument is anecdotal (see Sternberg's discussion of the influence of his personality on his choice of career). It is hard to see where ideas like this lead. With the exception of the chapter by Eysenck on the influence of personality variables on IQ-test performance, there is little on offer to the empirical scientist. Perhaps this view does an injustice to the quality of the ideas in these chapters. But the chapters appear like essays offered by a student who provides a brilliant answer to the wrong question. If the title were changed to Personality, Cultural Context and Adaptive Behaviour this review would have been significantly more favourable.

Mike Anderson is senior lecturer in psychology, University of Western Australia.

Personality and Intelligence

Author - Robert J. Sternberg and Patricia Ruzgis
ISBN - 0 521 41790 2 and 42835 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 337pp

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