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5 Books that Can Teach Us How to Understand Personalities

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Since ancient times, philosophers and other thinkers have urged their followers to acquire both self-knowledge and an understanding of people, arguing that doing so would enhance their lives. By the mid-19th century, there was a growing recognition that we do many things without much attention to them, that we may deceive ourselves when information becomes too painful for us to accept, and that many people are unaware of who they are. Meanwhile, philosophers and authors suggested there were a vast number of character types around us—the French sociologist Charles Fourier said there were 810.

Today, psychologists continue to recognize the challenges involved in understanding personality. Over the past 30 years, however, the field has reached a tipping point where it’s become possible to specify the kinds of reasoning we engage in about people. Today, this ability to reason about personality, which I call “personal intelligence,” can be clearly specified, measured and assessed for the first time. I describe this intelligence in my new book Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How it Shapes Our Lives (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus & Giroux). There are many instances of people who use this reasoning, or have pursued similar lines of thought. Here are five books that reflect this new wave of thinking—and point us toward how to understand ourselves and the people around us.

  1. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller (2011). James Miller examines the biographies of 12 philosophers as examples of what it means to devote ourselves to self-knowledge and how it affected the philosophers’ lives as they took the idea to heart. These philosophers’ insights were so questionable at times, their self-understanding so elusive, and their personal choices so flawed, that their lives often seemed confused or even peculiar. Ultimately, Miller was forced to reexamine his own beliefs about understanding ourselves—is it really possible or good?
  2. Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict their Behavior—Anytime, Anyplace by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Wendy Patrick Mazzarella (2008). Jo-Ellan Dimitrius is a social psychologist by training who became a consultant to law firms, helping them select jury members likely to be sympathetic to the cases they were trying. Her job involves predicting whether potential jurors are likely to be open-minded or not toward a defendant, based on their responses to questionnaires, how they dress, how they speak, and a host of other factors from their hairstyle to their occupation. Because Dimitrius receives clear feedback as to her choices after each case—in the form of whether a jury convicts or not, she is in an excellent position to develop expertise in evaluating people.
  3. Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag (1979). Recognizing the excess meaning we often attribute to falling ill, Sontag argues that illness shouldn’t reflect upon or define our character but should rather be seen for the distinct biological process it is. Written after Sontag herself was diagnosed with cancer, the book is a profound meditation grounded in the reality of the illnesses, which afflict us. Reading it, we come gradually to recognize that we are defined not by our diseases, but by ourselves.
  4. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner (2011). At the beginning of the 20th century, a spirited debate arose between psychologist Charles Spearman who suggested that there was simply one general intelligence and Louis Leon Thurstone, who argued there were 8 broad intelligences. During much of the 20th century, psychologists were content to study three intelligences: verbal, perceptual-organizational, and Spearman’s general intelligence. In 1983, that began to change when Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind appeared. In it, Gardner examined intelligent behavior drawn from different cultures, appeals to brain science, and case studies of savants in mathematics and music, concluding that there might be as many as seven or eight intelligences.
  5. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t by Nate Silver (2012). A key test of whether we understand a person is whether we can accurately predict how that individual will behave. Silver’s principles of prediction—that we are wrong more often than we might realize, but that some accuracy is possible—are general enough to be applicable to predicting personality as well as the weather and other complex systems. Silver’s book reminds us that truly understanding a subject can be measured in part by how well we can anticipate what happens.

 


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