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Personality traits and intelligence
Unraveling the connection between personality and cognition
Hi there –
It’s been a while, but I came across something this morning I thought was interesting enough to share.
Last month, some researchers in Minnesota published a colossal meta-analysis on personality traits and intelligence. They synthesized over 1,000 studies to find the link between various personality traits and cognitive abilities.
However, being a loyal Stew's Letter subscriber, I know you're itching to hear my infallible, top-notch analysis. I spent a full 42 minutes this morning skimming the study and feel ready to deliver my findings.
When it comes to intelligence, some personality traits seem to be generally helpful
Certain personality traits seem to be generally beneficial across a wide range of cognitive abilities. Those "helpful" traits are:
Internal locus of control
Openness (to experience & ideas, especially)
Activity (i.e. doing lots of stuff)
I was most surprised by "compassion," with "self-esteem" as a runner up. Two stereotypes had misguided my intuition: the brilliant jerk and insecure nerd. On further reflection, I can see how both may not hold up to scrutiny.
In reality, jerks often have simplistic views of the world. They tend to be intellectual oafs. And while I usually associate high self-esteem with success in other areas of life (dating, closing deals, whatever), it makes sense that self-belief would be just as relevant in difficult, uncertain heady endeavors.
Some personality traits seem to be generally unhelpful
On the flip side, there were a few personality traits that were negatively correlated across a wide range of cognitive abilities. These unhelpful traits include:
Uneven Temper (i.e. becoming easily upset or disturbed)
I felt kind of relieved reading this. I experience plenty of anxiety, but I’ve found ways to manage it (meditation, exercise, daydreaming of the imminent demise of my enemies). These things not only make life a little more pleasant, they may actually make someone sharper. Win win!
Some specific traits I care about
Given that I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing and communication, I was curious what personality traits, if any, correlated strongly with verbal ability. A few did:
Achievement via Independence (which basically means “being self-motivated”)
Openness, generally. But especially:
Openness to experiences & ideas
Having a creative personality
It was validating to see “industriousness” on the list because in my experience so much of becoming a better writer comes down to putting in the time (which, in spirit at least, is something you can control).
Notice what's not on the list: anxiety, depression, or having an uneven temper. I thought this tweet offered a pretty interesting partial explanation:
The full breakdown
Here's a visual breakdown of the various correlations. I highlighted the "generally helpful" traits in green, and "generally unhelpful" traits in red.
P.S. I have no TikTok for you, but here’s a YouTube video I enjoyed recently. It’s a wide-ranging interview with James Cameron shortly after The Titanic came out. One point he makes really resonated: in your career, you’ll mostly operate in a peer environment. And your peers all probably think they’re the special one, not you. That’s why it’s important to choose yourself and not expect for many people to cheer you along. (starts around the 8:40 mark)