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Comment Posted 2004.

Does the Systems Framework for Personality Psychology (SFPP) Represent the "Next Phase" of Emotional Intelligence Research?

A colleague recently e-mailed me to ask if the Systems Framework for Personality Psychology represented a new direction in emotional intelligence research. In response, I have written this brief comment.

I believe that, were people in the field of emotional intelligence to familiarize themselves with the SFPP and integrate it in their thinking, it would place the field of emotional intelligence on a sounder scientific footing. That would channel the wonderful energy of the emotional intelligence area, so that it could more effectively make contributions to science and public health.

What is the Systems Framework for Personality Psychology (SFPP)?

The Systems Framework for Personality Psychology, or SFPP, is a new, contemporary approach to the discipline of personality psychology. Today, two other approaches to the discipline of personality psychology are also in use. One approach provides an overview of the field of personality by examining, in turn, such theoretical perspectives as the psychodynamic, behavioral, social cognitive, and humanistic. A second approach discards much or all such theoretical perspectives, for a focus on a specific research topics such as the Big Five personality traits.

The SFPP provides a means of integrating personality psychology's history with its present research. In other words, the SFPP allows for a coherent overview of the personality system. The Systems Framework can be described very simply. In fact, at an introductory level, it makes one central statement: The study of personality can be divided conveniently into four areas:

  1. Where personality is located and what it is,
  2. what the main parts of personality are,
  3. how personality is organized, and,
  4. how personality develops (Mayer, 1994, 1998).

Here are some reasons I believe that the Systems Framework is important to Emotional Intelligence Researchers

I believe that many of the characterics of individuals that EI researchers are interested in have more to do with human personality, generally speaking, than with EI specifically. For example, Daniel Goleman’s (1995) popularization of emotional intelligence certainly represented the original theory that I developed with Peter Salovey, but it also added in many other aspects -- zeal, persistence, character, and the like -- which are more generally legitimate parts of personality. In a sense, you could say that Goleman's model represents an anticipation of the renewed importance now attributed to personality characteristics by the field of psychology. Certainly, looking at important personality traits such as zeal, persistence, and motivation plainly predicts something important. He is right about that.

If these things are legimate parts of personality, but not of EI per se (considered as an ability), it makes all the sense in the world to return to the study of pesonality psychology.

The educators and researchers at CASEL, for example, have embarked on an impressive new examination of how programs in social and emotional learning and education may contribute to student and school well-being. They have dropped the EI terminology, to a great extent, recognizing that it does not adequately serve as an umbrella concept for their work. They have replaced it with some serious research -- which is wonderful. Ultimately, however, some guiding principles and guiding terminology is of importance. Although EI could never provide that (it is one variable, as described here), the SFPP can provide such a language.

How does the Systems Framework for Personality Psychology contribute?

I think many people, particularly psychologists involved in the EI area, know that they are working in the area of personality psychology but would prefer not to acknowledge that. Their quite legitimate concern is that most other people are not going to be very interested in their work given that the discipline of personality psychology is often identified as a succession of older theories (e.g., psychodynamic, humanistic), or as a collection of unintegrated research topics (e.g., traits, defenses). I don't believe either approach is a good way to represent a science.

The discipline of personality psychology, however, is undergoing a renaissance. The Systems Framework of Personality Psychology can reflect and convey that new spirit. It presents a very contemporary view of the personality system. It allows for an integrated view, along with a coherent, consensual language for the discipline of personality psychology. The language, methods, and research tools already used in the field of EI are quite consistent with the language developed in the SFPP. At the same time, the SFPP, because it is a formal system for organizing knowledge about how human personality (e.g., character) operates, can clarify thinking in the area. Using the coherent, pan-theoretical language of the SFPP should permit the channeling of the energy in the EI area to study matters of importance in personality psychology.

Summary, for Now

I believe the Systems Framework for Personality Psychology can greatly enrich the field of EI by providing a framework for the study of many variables of interest -- including emotional intelligence proper, but also zeal, persistence, and social skills. The SFPP provides a way to combine many such personality traits in a conceptually clear way, relative to working without such an organizational guide.

On the other hand, the SFPP is a framework. It is a way of thinking and organizing a scientific field of study moreso than a research area in-and-of-itself. So, I believe it represents the next wave of conceptualization in the field of EI. That is, it can play an important role by helping to clarify concepts and language in ongoing research that used to be called EI research (some of which really is EI research). This next wave is likely to blend into a new and more invigorated personality psychology.

I will be adding more on how the Systems Framework can assist with work in EI, and how the SFPP and EI can enrich one another in the near future. For now, if you are interested in the Systems Framework, you also can visit www.thepersonalitysystem.org.


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Mayer, J. D. (1994). A systems-topics framework for the study of personality. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 13, 99-123.

Mayer, J. D. (1998). A systems framework for the field of personality psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 118-144.