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NIH Record Researcher Asks, 'What Does It Mean to be Intelligent?'

By Susan M. Persons

Thinking about and testing for human intelligence is no small matter. And there is an abundance of research to prove it. Yet, Robert J. Sternberg, professor of psychology at Yale University, says that in many ways, we have it all wrong. "There are major problems with conventional thinking about intelligence — at best, our notions are incomplete, and at worst, simply wrong," he posited.

Sternberg, a recent guest speaker of the NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Seminar Series, argued for a new definition of intelligence that would expand the traditional focus on analytical skills to incorporate creative and practical abilities. "With a balance of these three components, we will be better able to teach and test the ability to achieve success in life, given one's personal standards within one's sociocultural context," he said. "The ability to achieve success depends on capitalizing on one's strengths and correcting or compensating for one's weaknesses to adapt to, shape and select environments," he added.

According to Sternberg, analytical intelligence is our ability to analyze, judge, compare or contrast. Although he concedes this is an important component of intelligence, Sternberg would add two measurement categories to make the definition of intelligence more meaningful — creative intelligence, which is measured by problems assessing how well an individual can cope with relative novelty and can create or invent new products, and practical intelligence, which measures the ability to handle problems that occur in daily life. "Utilizing one's practical intelligence means that you either change oneself, change the environment, or seek out another environment to better match one's needs, abilities and desires," he explained.

Sternberg bases his theory of "successful intelligence" on a multitude of international and domestic studies. One theme that emerged from the research suggests that differences in context can have a powerful effect on performance. In a study of Brazilian street children, it was found that while these children were successful at conducting street business (often at risk of death), they were little able or unable to do school mathematics. Another study showed that Berkeley housewives who successfully computed the mathematics necessary for comparison shopping in the supermarket were unable to do the same mathematics in a classroom. A third study found that men who had the ability to manipulate complex mathematical formulas to calculate the handicap for horse races had IQ's that were at the population average or slightly below. "Participants clearly demonstrated that when cognitive challenges are in the context of real life situations, they can handle them," noted Sternberg.

A second contextual factor highlighted by Sternberg is the importance of family expectations on children's learning. A study in Kenya demonstrated that the identification of a general factor of human intelligence may tell more about the interactions between individuals and their schooling than it does about the structure of human abilities. When Kenyan children were tested for their important knowledge of the indigenous environment, those who scored high on the indigenous tests scored low on conventional tests of intelligence. As a possible explanation, Sternberg reported that "Kenyan families typically value only one kind of knowledge (either indigenous or Western) and most families in the village do not particularly value formal Western schooling; their children for the most part will spend their lives farming or engaged in other occupations that make little or no use of Western schooling."

Sternberg's research also yields some important information for those interested in increasing the number of minority researchers. In a study of Yale students, Sternberg observed that the students in the high-creative and high-practical groups were much more diverse in terms of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds than were the students in the high-analytical group. "Just by expanding the range of abilities we measured, we discovered more intellectual strengths than would have been apparent through a conventional test," he said.

The impact of Sternberg's research findings on teaching is critical. "First of all, it is important to note that all three abilities — analytical, creative and practical — can be taught. When students are taught in a way that best fits how they think, they do better in school. Children with high levels of creative and practical abilities, who are almost never taught or assessed in a way that matches their pattern of abilities, may be at a disadvantage in course after course, year after year," he said. And students taught in this way not only outperformed the other students in terms of the performance assessments, but also had superior performance on multiple-choice memory tests.

"The barriers to change, however, are myriad and strong," cautioned Sternberg. "The U.S. has developed a multi-million dollar testing industry whose tests are based on conventional notions of intelligence. The modern version of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence tests or the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales have not evolved much over the years. Whereas old computers and old VCRs and old telephones rapidly go out of date, old tests never seem to die, except for updating of norms and cosmetic changes," he explained. In addition to an outdated, entrenched testing system throughout the country, Sternberg cites the magazine U.S. News and World Report as "doing more to bolster traditional tests than perhaps any other single source in the past several decades when it started publishing rankings of undergraduate and graduate institutions based in large part on test scores."

Despite the opposition to change, Sternberg is con fident that there are ways to move beyond conventional notions of intelligence. He believes that utilizing the successful-intelligence construct in labs, schools and the workplace will not only benefit science, but also individuals, organizations and society — both in the short and long term. "In fact, the most important abilities for science are creative abilities, and if we continue to measure students with conventional tests and do not value creative abilities in training, the result may be that we are picking the wrong people. People who are highly creative may be denied the opportunity to go into science, and science may lose its best potential to advance," he concluded.

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