You are here

It's all in the personality

A high curiosity quotient is today a more vital trait for success than EQ and IQ, says psychology doyen Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

'Personality predicts performance while also not being biased. Personality is pretty much colour-blind, age-blind and sex-blind.'

OkCupid. eHarmony. The names of dating websites roll off his tongue easily - clearly, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is au fait with the online dating scene.

But the 40-year-old is not looking for a potential mate, nor is he looking to expand his social network on these sites. The happily-married psychology expert takes a keen interest in dating websites and apps because, in his view, it is the one industry which has used technology "the most effectively and most wisely".

"(In life), unless you're asleep, you're either working, consuming, shopping or eating. Basically, work and relationships are the two key areas." But, he adds, the corporate human resource (HR) field is "way less advanced" than the relationships business when it comes to the use of technology in personality assessments.

His academic interest in online dating aside, most of Dr Chamorro-Premuzic's time these days is spent promoting his firm's personality tests for use in the business world, in recruitment and leadership development. A widely-recognised authority in psychological profiling, talent management and people analytics, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic has an illustrious CV - including teaching stints as an academic at New York University, University College London, and Columbia University - eight books and over 150 magazine and newspaper articles to his name.

In March this year, he was appointed CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, taking over from the firm's founder, Robert Hogan, who is widely credited with pioneering the use of personality assessments to improve organisational effectiveness.

The Hogan personality tests are today recognised as among the best available. According to Dr Chamorro-Premuzic, the firm has worked with 95 per cent of Fortune 100 companies and 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. "If a company has more than 1,000 employees and is global, we probably worked with them at some point, either for selection or for development."

In an interview in 2011, Dr Hogan had told The Business Times that there are four critical ingredients of leadership: integrity, judgement, competence and vision.

Dr Chamorro-Premuzic agrees. "But I'd add a fifth (trait) which is very important and he didn't mention - self-awareness," he tells this writer during a recent visit. In his view, if one does not know himself well and how his behaviour affects others, he will not be effective as a leader.

"That's very important because more and more leaders lack self-awareness - particularly in the western world - and think they're better than they actually are," he says. "There's a big narcissistic culture, especially in America, probably because the generation grew up with parents telling them they can be really special, that they can be the next Steve Jobs, the next Richard Branson. And if you believe that, you become quite entitled, and you lack self-awareness. Others around you might think you're an idiot or an arrogant person but you still think of yourself as really good."

That is where the Hogan Assessment tests come in. Having profiled millions of people since the firm was started in 1987, collecting not only the self-reported data but also those on how others view them, the firm has drawn the link between self-presentation styles and work behaviour. "Imagine that we are examining millions of managers and comparing how they see themselves with how others see them . . . we don't rely on your self-knowledge and introspection, or your honesty even. We give you a bunch of questions, and profile you against a base of normative data." That, in fact, mirrors how people interact in real life, he says.

The tests, however, are just part of the process and act as the diagnosis - "because if I don't know what you're like, I won't be able to give you feedback and I won't be able to help you", he says.

The feedback, which is provided by phone or even through a coach for senior executives, is equally important. "Then you go from the science of prediction to the art of intervention, to improve or boost performance."

The tests, Dr Chamarro-Premuzic explains, were first developed in 1976 to provide a fairer alternative to IQ (intelligence quotient) tests, which in the past were the only ones used in recruitment. "These discriminated against the minority, and sometimes against women," he says. "Personality predicts performance while also not being biased. Personality is pretty much colour-blind, age-blind and sex-blind."

The wider way to look at these tests is how they fit in the war for talent, he says, using a term coined by consulting firm McKinsey in 1997. "Companies are fighting the war for talent, which is about identifying, acquiring, developing, engaging and retaining talented employees.

"In this war, we are the arms manufacturer. We create the weapons that are used to fight this war for talent, because our weapons help you understand whether somebody is talented or not. And then you have the HR directors that are like the generals; the coaches and consultants are like the hitmen or mercenaries; and talented people are the commodity - instead of silver, gold or drugs, talented people are what's being fought for.

"But if you don't know who the talented person is, you're not fighting the war correctly. Our tools help organisations understand how talented the employee is, and use that information to make them more effective."

Personality assessments are still under-utilised in the corporate world today, says Dr Chamorro-Premuzic, who estimates that only 2 per cent of the working population in the world ever completes a personality assessment for employment - "a methodology that is more accurate than interviews, letters of recommendations, CVs".

"I know that Asia is very focused on having achievements or having a CV that shows your grades but that's less valid and accurate than a personality test. So we think the potential is huge, and I have inherited that mandate which is to make personality (research) more useful in the real world."

While IQ and EQ (emotional quotient) are well-established concepts, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic says that the curiosity quotient (CQ) - coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his 2004 best-seller The World is Flat - is more important in today's world where information is readily available. People with higher CQ have hungry minds, he explains. They are more inquisitive and are open to new experiences, tending to find novelty exciting and quickly getting bored with routine.

"Humans are the only species and animals capable of asking why. Even chimpanzees, who are quite smart in the animal kingdom, they learn by doing but they don't ask why. We can ask why but in this day and age, we rarely do, because we ask what. And we know the answer, and that's it. It makes us lazy. That's why curiosity will be more and more important, because having the ability to ask why will give you more in-depth knowledge, and will allow you to remain a learning animal.

"In an age of ever increasing complexity, what you learn and what you know is not enough. You need to keep learning, and in order to keep learning you have to ask why."

If CQ is important, how then can this be nurtured? "It's about teaching people - whether students or employees - that they shouldn't just be satisfied with the first answer they find," he says. "That there's more to knowledge than knowing facts. And making them a little bit more rebellious and non-conformist so they question authority. Most people who are entrepreneurial and innovative have this instinct.

"It's about experiencing a gap between what you know and what you would like to know, and generating that feeling more often. That requires educators and managers to make people aware that they don't know as much as they could know."

This hunger to learn more is also related to the "narcissism epidemic", he says. "If we all think that we're more knowledgeable than we are, then we're not going to develop curiosity . . . It matters to have the desire - almost an itch - to want to know more and learn. To some degree that depends on what kind of personalities you have, and people who are inquisitive and open have that desire, but at the same time, we want to nurture it and foster it in everybody."

The spread of narcissism could in fact be an invention by Hollywood to harm the work ethic in Asian economies, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic says, laughing. "That's the only chance America has, to compete with the Asian economies of the world - if they become obese, narcissistic, entitled and lazy. But I have no evidence for this. It's a wild conspiracy theory. Not the only one that I have," he adds with a broad smile, "but it's definitely one".

Another difference that the US has from eastern countries is its attitude towards introversion. "In America, if you're an introvert, it's almost like you have a disability," says Dr Chamorro-Premuzic, who moved to New York from London a few years ago. "That does overlap with the charisma myth, the idea that we should only have managers and leaders if they're cool, charismatic and charming."

Pointing to Barack Obama, George W Bush and Donald Trump - "who seems like an idiot on some level" - he says: "You get away a lot in America for being extroverted."

Extroversion, like any other psychological trait, is normally distributed in the population, meaning that 65 per cent of people are neither extroverted nor introverted, but somewhere in between. Cultural influences, too, play a part - a random person in Argentina would probably be more extroverted than the average Singaporean, explains the Argentina-born PhD-holder.

There are upsides to being an introvert too, something that is often forgotten in the US, and which the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a lawyer, had shown. "When we reward extroverts, we often confuse activity with productivity. We often mistake competence with confidence.

"And that goes back to the gender issue in leadership: men are more likely to self-promote and brag about themselves, and to be bold and assertive. In any culture, men who do that tend to be more tolerated than women who do that. If we were truly able to judge competence, then it doesn't matter what you're like in terms of your personality, what you think of yourself. Because we'd get people who do well in their job, full stop."

It is because people are often incapable of evaluating these skills that they get sidetracked. "Confidence evolved as a deception strategy. It's for people who were not competent to try to fake confidence in others. I come from a country where most people are quite charming and charismatic, but they're really good at faking confidence . . . If I think I'm amazing, I can trick you more easily, because I have no self-doubt. That might be good for the individual, but if we have a whole system and society made up of people who are fraudsters or good at faking it, the result is like Argentina - the country is collectively not functioning very well."

Similarly, most Asian countries promote and reward modesty and self-improvement, not bragging nor standing out. "So you can see the collective benefits of these traits are very important, and in America and much of the world, people still don't understand that. So I think we should try to have a less confident world. It's almost heretical in the US - 'What? This guy is crazy.' If you say that in South Korea, Japan or Singapore, people would understand it. Because being aware of your limitations is a fundamental pre-condition for getting better."

And accurate personality tests are not the only means for improving self-awareness; feedback from others is important as well, he says. "Critical negative feedback from people you trust is the most important source of improvement. Unfortunately, anywhere in the world, society foments or promotes white lies; we try to be polite with others. If I work with you, I'll tell you you're really great because I don't want to offend you, but that harms you more. So the number one thing we should be training people, whether employee or manager, is to solicit feedback: 'What am I doing wrong? What could I do better?'

"If you look at the people who are extremely successful in their field, they're not that confident. They actually are their own enemies - they're very self critical, they're very harsh on themselves."

Another way to be more self-aware is to compare oneself with others who are more successful, not less, as that could lead to stagnation and complacency. "If, no matter how much you accomplish, you understand that there are people who are better than you, you will keep trying to chase them . . . Anything that provides people with a reality check can work as a really vital self-awareness or self-improvement tool."

By extension, Asia - with its prized traits of humility and collectivism - would therefore succeed "philosophically and psychologically speaking". "If you care about things other than yourself as a collective group, you will outperform societies where everybody is so focused on themselves they don't care about the group. What's good for the individual isn't necessarily good for the group. What's good for the group is always good for the individual."

Research has also shown that personality does not only predict one's performance at work, but also his health, longevity, relationship successes, consumer preferences and interests, says Dr Chamorro-Premuzic.

Given his extensive study of personalities and people, what's the one thing he has learnt that has helped him the most, you ask. The question takes him by surprise, and the usually quick-on-his-feet CEO pauses for a few seconds. "I don't think there has been one thing constantly throughout my life that has helped me. It's probably two or three things that at different points have been quite helpful."

Being over-confident when he was younger helped as he tried many things he would not have otherwise, he says. More recently, he has received very useful feedback from key people in his life, including his boss, that helped him be more self-critical. "So at the right time, I could make the switch in order to realise what my limitations were and keep getting better. Even more recently or now, I think to have the capacity and the will and also the opportunity to choose to do what you really like - that has been a really important thing . . . I'm lucky to even get paid for what I do because I would do it for free."

As the conversation turns to his personal life, he responds readily about his 33-year-old French wife, a lawyer, whom he has been together with for 15 years and married three years ago.

"There's something in psychology called the Michelangelo phenomenon which explains why successful relationships are successful: you're in one if your partner can make you the best possible person.

"That's how I feel about my wife," he says, smiling. "She makes me a better person, encourages me to be a better person, and copes also with my negative side. In a way she has a kind of reality distortion and sees me in a very positive way."

The 90-minute interview is drawing to a close, and Dr Chamorro-Premuzic - now gesticulating less than before - summarises his thoughts on life in general with his characteristic dose of wisdom and humour. "It's only two choices you have to make: career and a partner. If you make those two choices right, you can allow yourself to screw up in other areas."


CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems

1975: Born in Argentina

1994-1998: BA, Psychology and Philosophy in University of Buenos Aires

1999-2003: MSc and PhD in psychology at University College London

2005-2006: Msc, Occupational Psychology at University of London

2005-2012: Visiting Professor at New York University

Since 2012: Professor of Business Psychology at University College London

2012-2014: Co-founder of

2012-2015: Vice-President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems

2015: CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems

Books: Personality and Intellectual Competence (2005), Personality and Individual differences (2007), The Psychology of Personnel Selection (2010), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences (2011), Personality 101 (2012), Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity and Self-doubt (2013)

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to