Smart, Funny, & Hot: Why some people have it all...
A professor of psychology explains why intelligence, personality, and even attractiveness often correlate.
Written by Curtis Dunkel.
Are some people smarter than others? If you’re on the side of the angels, you might respond that everyone has unique talents and abilities – that questions concerning greater and lesser intellectual ability are not only nonsensical, but ethically dubious. Yet if you live in the real world, you might respond with a “duh, of course, some people are smarter than others”. For example, you might remember your friend from school who never seemed to study but always aced his exams. Learning just seemed so easy for him. Or conversely, you might remember that kid you thought was “dumb as a stump” because he couldn’t seem to grasp the most rudimentary concepts. Clearly there are differences in intelligence.
In answering the question, a psychologist with expertise in individual differences may make an empirical argument along the following lines. If you administer an array of tests of seemingly disparate cognitive abilities (e.g., reading comprehension, memory, abstract reasoning) to a diverse group of individuals, you will find that their scores on the test positively correlate. Those who perform well on one test are likely to perform well on others; those who perform poorly on one test will likely to perform poorly on others. This is called a positive manifold and it strongly suggests there is a unitary underlying ability called general intelligence or g. The validity of g is supported by a web of associations, such as individuals with greater g having larger brains. g is also predictive of many important real-life outcomes, such as job success. Thus, the answer of most psychologists with an understanding of the literature would concur with the more “grounded” response: although talents and specific abilities vary greatly across people, some people are indeed more intelligent than others.
What about personality? Do some people have a better personality than others? Again, individuals’ responses may vary. If you are the kinder-gentler sort, you may recognize the unique beautiful light that shines in each individual and respond that we are all special in our own way. You may claim it’s just flat out wrong to state that one person has a “better” personality than another. If you’re more realistic, however, you may scan your experiences and then answer in the affirmative. Harkening back to your school days, you may recall a classmate who managed to get along with people from all the different cliques, the teachers, and even the parents – a sort of “righteous dude”. At the other end of the spectrum, you may remember a classmate who just seemed like jerk – a guy that no one really liked. Clearly, the quality of people’s personalities is not distributed equally.
Unlike the case with g, the opinions of psychologists would be mixed at best and probably more in line with the Pollyanna good-natured response. There is no “better” or “worse” personality, they might insist. Yet just like with g, there exists a positive manifold among personality traits such that individuals who score at the positively valenced end of one personality trait (e.g., agreeableness) tend to score at the positively valenced end of other personality traits (e.g., emotional stability). We call this underlying unitary property the general factor of personality or GFP. And just like g, it is supported by a web of associations and is predictive of important real-life outcomes like job success. While we all have our own foibles and character defects, some people do indeed have a better personality than others. But what does it mean to have a better personality? What exactly is the GFP?
Someone with a better personality, or high GFP, behaves in a socially effective and appropriate manner. The GFP is synonymous with several psychological constructs such as emotional intelligence and ego-resiliency1 (my preferred conceptualization). Being high on this trait allows an individual to modify their level of self-control to match demands of their social setting. They become more composed at a funeral, expressing sympathy and offering comfort to those in mourning. And they’re able to loosen up at a party, lightening the mood and facilitating inclusiveness. In each setting, the individual’s behavior would be proper; neither boorishly under-controlled at the funeral nor an over-controlled wet blanket at the party.
The relationship between factors
The concept of general intelligence (as opposed to multiple intelligences) strikes many as unfair and even a bit mean. The GFP concept may seem even worse. But at least God or nature didn’t dole out more g and more GFP to the same people. It would be surprising if the smartest person you knew in high school was also the most popular. The GFP and g are independent, right?
I’m afraid not. In fact, it would be even more surprising if the smartest person you knew in high school happened to be the least popular. Moving beyond the poles of intelligence and personality, here’s something to try. Imagine ranking your former classmates on how intelligent they were and then on how socially adept they were. What would you guess is the correlation between these two variables?
A recent meta-analysis on the association between personality and cognitive ability provides one of the best estimates. The study is astounding. It examined over 60,000 personality/cognitive ability associations covering 79 aspects of personality and 97 measures of cognitive ability across millions of participants. The authors, Kevin Stanek and Deniz Ones, found that the GFP has one of the strongest associations with g. The correlation between the two was r = .36. So not only is there a significant positive correlation, the size of the effect is medium to large2. What’s more, the correlation of g with the Big Five personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (or Emotional Stability) ranged from r = –.02 - .26. This means that the variance shared among the Big Five (i.e., the GFP) was more strongly related to general intelligence than any of the Big Five traits was itself. And that includes Openness, which is composed of facets that one would assume are associated with intelligence, such as ‘intellect’ and ‘need for cognition’3.
There are a number of possible reasons why g and the GFP correlate. Here’s one. Imagine ranking your high school classmates along a third dimension: physical attractiveness. What would you guess is the correlation between this variable and the other two? As before, it seems unlikely that the smartest individual or the most popular one was also the most physically attractive. However, it's actually quite possible that you’d find positive correlations between the rankings. Those with higher g would tend to be more attractive, as would those with a higher GFP. It is therefore possible that intelligence, personality, and physical attractiveness are all connected by some common thread. This common thread could be fitness. Individuals may vary along a general fitness factor because environmental assaults and/or genetic mutations upset functioning at a molecular level, impacting virtually every aspect of the individual.
Toxins such as lead may have a generalized negative impact on functioning. The effects of lead exposure on cognitive functioning are well-known, but it may have broad negative effects on personality as well. Similarly, inbreeding (of the kind that is known to have happened within many royal families) increases the likelihood that deleterious recessive genes are expressed. And indices tapping the degree of inbreeding (called runs of homozygosity) have been linked to detriments in intelligence and personality. The implications of this possibility aren’t necessarily gloomy. It suggests that even small environmental or genetic improvements may yield broad positive effects.
Curt Dunkel is a former Professor of Psychology. He is now an independent scholar with interests in evolutionary psychology and individual differences.
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This idea was originally proposed by the prolific and influential psychologist Jack Block. He speculated that the first unrotated factor of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory was, in essence, ego-resiliency.
But one particular facet of Openness, called Ideas, had an even stronger correlation of r = .40.