What Is The Triarchic Theory Of Intelligence?

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First attempts at measuring intelligence began with Spearman’s proposal of generalized intelligence. From his theory, the first IQ tests were born. These tests aimed to identify how humans learn.

Spearman found that people’s IQ, or intelligence quotient, had a strong correlation with their success in other areas in life. His theory of a single, generalized intelligence was the first of its kind, but a lot of work was still needed on the subject.  

In 1985, a new theory was proposed. Dr. Robert J. Sternberg developed the triarchic theory of intelligence. And it has forever changed the way we understand human intelligence.

What Different Theories Of Intelligence Are There?


In 1904, English psychologist Charles Spearman proposed one of the first theories of human intelligence. He called it the g factor, or generalized intelligence: the mental capacity to perform different cognitive functions. It’s from his theory that the first IQ tests were created.

Spearman’s theory was one of the most significant of its time. But since then, alternate theories of intelligence have been suggested.

One of the most prevalent today is developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. In it, he suggests that there are actually nine different types of intelligence — quite a diversion from Spearman’s single generalized intelligence.

Another prevalent theory on human intelligence? Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence.  

intelligence theories

What Are The Three Types Of Intelligence In Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory?


The name of this theory says it all. Triarchic, from tri, meaning three, is a theory composed of three different types of intelligence. These three intelligences form a matrix of skills that together, can predict a person’s success in life.

So, what are Sternberg’s three types of intelligence? The triarchic theory is composed of analytical, creative, and practical intelligence.

1. Analytical intelligence

Sternberg defines analytical intelligence as the ability to recognize patterns, apply logic, and use deductive reasoning.

This is the type of intelligence has historically been the easiest to test for. In fact, it’s closely related to Spearman’s generalized intelligence, which means it often shows up on traditional IQ tests.

However, unlike traditional methods of measuring intelligence, the triarchic theory doesn’t stop with logic and pattern recognition. Instead, it develops a more holistic picture of the mind with two additional elements of intelligence.

2. Creative intelligence

Creative intelligence, or experiential intelligence, is defined by how well a person handles novelty.

Sternberg observed that people with high intelligence handled new problems with greater skill than others. They seemed to have a predisposition for acquiring new skills and abilities. This was due to what he called experiential, or creative intelligence.

Creative intelligence is the ability to adapt to new situations and create novel approaches to everyday problems. People with this form of intelligence adapt quickly to their environment and have a flexible mindset.

3. Practical intelligence

The third form of intelligence in Sternberg’s triarchic theory is practical intelligence: the intelligence of common sense thinking. You may also know this intelligence as “street smarts.”

A person’s practical intelligence is reflected in their ability to fit into an adverse environment and navigate their surroundings with confidence and competence.

Of Sternberg’s three forms of intelligence, practical intelligence is the most contested by experts.

This element of the triarchic theory has attracted criticism due to the inherent challenges of accurately measuring it. But some argue that Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence is one of the hallmark components of practical intelligence.

triarchic theory

What Is Sternberg’s Theory Of Successful Intelligence?


Sternberg’s theory of successful intelligence is a natural consequence of his triarchic theory approach to individual competence.

He argued that true intelligence was the result of successfully balancing the three types of mental abilities, which he called areas of “giftedness.”

In his model, it was never enough to score well in one or two areas of intelligence. To succeed in life, most people needed a balance of all three.

It’s not enough to possess street smarts if you’ can’t create a novel solution to a new problem. And having academic prowess won’t be helpful if you’re in an unfamiliar environment and need to safely navigate yourself home.

Sternberg’s model of successful intelligence suggests that achieving life goals requires skill in all three areas.

As Jim Kwik, Author of Mindvalley’s Superbrain Program explains, “It’s not about mental intelligence, it’s about mental fitness.”

What Is The Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test?

In 1993, Sternberg created the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (STAT) as an academic tool to test the triarchic theory of intelligence. Sternberg urged audiences not to treat his test as the equivalent of an IQ test, since much of his work ran in direct opposition to the psychometrics of the 20th century.

But by 1996, scores on the STAT were matching up with the psychometric tests of general intelligence, like the IQ test. And soon enough, the STAT was being used as a stand-in for other types of intelligence testing.

sternberg triarchic theory

How Does The STAT Test Work?

The test itself is relatively straightforward. Subjects are tested on their ability to handle novel situations in three sessions, each session corresponding to one of the three types of intelligence.

The test is available in 12 different difficulty levels, loosely following the Western education system from kindergarten through high school. And the test must be administered to groups, not individuals.

The group requirement is actually pretty important. Why? Because unlike regular intelligence tests, the STAT isn’t concerned with general knowledge. It’s more focused on how people learn.

For example, a group of subjects might be asked to consider what the world would be like if all cats were magnetic. The test administrators would then ask the subjects to reason about how that single fact might make the world a different place.

Other test areas require conscious and verbal reasoning about advertising slogans, words out of context, and even geometric forms. In all cases, what’s being measured is the individual’s ability to visualize a concept, analyze it, and reason about it in novel ways.

Is Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory Still Relevant?

When Sternberg began the research that would grow into the triarchic theory of intelligence, most of the Western world was gauging intelligence with memorization tests and pattern recognition on paper.

By integrating different facets of human intelligence into a holistic model, Sternberg built a theory of intelligence that predicts human ability far better than earlier models ever could.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize just how much there is to know. In the future, new theories of intelligence will emerge. But, like Sternberg’s theory of triarchic intelligence, each new concept owes a great debt to those that came before.


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