What Is the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence?

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Matt Coates
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Highlights: Dr. Robert J. Sternberg developed the triarchic theory of intelligence. And it has forever changed the way we understand human intelligence.

The first attempts at measuring intelligence began with Spearman’s proposal of generalized intelligence, which consequently gave birth to the first IQ test that we know today. Spearman’s intention, however, was to identify how people learn.

Spearman found that people’s intelligence quotient (IQ) had a strong correlation with their success in other areas of life.

His theory of a single generalized intelligence was the first of its kind, thus opening the door for future psychologists to explore and expand further on Spearman’s research on intelligence.

In 1985, Dr. Robert J. Sternberg proposed a new theory he called the triarchic theory of intelligence. Little did he know that his work would pave the way for how psychologists study and understand human intelligence today.

What Different Theories of Intelligence Are There?

There are many schools of psychology that discuss various theories of intelligence, but there are four major theories that stand out to this day.

1. General intelligence

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.

2. Primary mental abilities

In 1935, psychologist Louis L. Thurstone neglected to look at intelligence from a single viewpoint and offered an alternative theory of intelligence.

He instead proposed a model that focused on seven primary mental abilities. It was focused on verbal comprehension, word fluency, number facility, spatial visualization, associative memory, perceptual speed, and reasoning.

3. Multiple intelligences

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.

4. Triarchic theory of intelligence

Psychologist Robert Sternberg defined intelligence as “mental activity directed toward purposive adaptation to, selection, and shaping of real-world environments relevant to one’s life.” 

He agreed with the idea that intelligence was much broader than looking at it from a single point of view. But, Sternberg also didn’t agree with all of ‘Gardner’s types of intelligence’ and viewed them as independent talents that an individual can possess. 

He instead proposed what he referred to as “successful intelligence” which focused on problem-solving abilities (analytical), the capacity to deal with new problems based on past experiences (creative), and the level of adaptability to a changing environment (practical).

When Was the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence Developed?

In the early 1980s, Robert Sternberg first introduced his work on the triarchic theory of intelligence.

It was an attempt to learn and dissect human intelligence into three distinct categories.

  • Componential: Analytic skills
  • Experiential: Creative Skills
  • Practical: Contextual skills

Prior to Sternberg, the concept of general intelligence was what most of the psychology communities and researchers’ schools of thought agreed on. 

But Sternberg believed that the study of intelligence was more complex than the narrow viewpoint that existed at the time. He later proposed a theory that accounted for a more cognitive approach than a behavioristic one. 

Sternberg argued that how a person adapts to the changing environment and the knowledge that they contribute over time plays a significant role in determining their intelligence.

He also criticized the current intelligence tests for not including creativity as part of the assessment of intelligence. He noted that there are always other important characteristics that account for a person’s intelligence.

Cognitive processes, performance components, planning, decision-making skills, etc…, were all important to factor in.

What Three Types of Intelligence Constitute 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 types of intelligence 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 (also known as componential), creative (also known as experiential), and practical intelligence (also known as contextual).

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence Chart

1. Analytical intelligence (also known as componential)

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

This is the type of intelligence that 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 (also known as experiential)

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. Because of this, people with this form of intelligence adapt quickly to their environment and tend to have a flexible mindset.

3. Practical intelligence (also known as contextual)

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. Some, however, argue that Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence is one of the hallmark components of practical intelligence.

You can break them down into different functions and intelligence characteristics, as shown in the chart below:

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 need a balance of all three.

Therefore, based on his theory It is 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.

It's not about mental intelligence, it's about mental fitness. — @jimkwik Click To Tweet

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 directly opposed the psychometrics of the 20th century.

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

How does the STAT 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 of intelligence 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.

So what we realize is that 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 who came before.

Images generated on Midjourney.

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Matt Coates

Matt Coates

Matt is a copywriter for Mindvalley. As a professional word putterer, he can be found constantly squeezing his creative juices to concoct personal growth narratives to transport people to a place where great potential knows no bounds. He is also on a quest to be seriously funny.
Written by

Matt Coates

Matt is a copywriter for Mindvalley. As a professional word putterer, he can be found constantly squeezing his creative juices to concoct personal growth narratives to transport people to a place where great potential knows no bounds. He is also on a quest to be seriously funny.
Jim Kwik - Trainer
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Jim Kwik is the trainer of Mindvalley’s Superbrain and Super Reading quests. He’s a brain coach and a world expert in speed reading, memory improvement, and optimal brain performance. Known as the “boy with the broken brain” due to a childhood injury, Jim discovered strategies to dramatically enhance his mental performance. He is now committed to helping people improve their memory, learn to speed-read, increase their decision-making skills, and turn on their superbrain. He has shared his techniques with Hollywood actors, Fortune 500 companies, and trailblazing entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson to reach their highest level of mental performance. He is also one of the most sought-after trainers for top organizations like Harvard University, Nike, Virgin, and GE.

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Mindvalley is committed to providing reliable and trustworthy content. 

We rely heavily on evidence-based sources, including peer-reviewed studies and insights from recognized experts in various personal growth fields. Our goal is to keep the information we share both current and factual. 

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