You're Smarter Than You Think

As a child, says Yale psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, intelligence testsmade him nervous, and in college, he got a C in Introductory Psychology. But he went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford and has since become one of the world's leading experts on intelligence.

Sternberg's early test anxiety may have left a few scars. He now rejects psychology's traditional take on intelligence in favor of a more radical concept--one with significant implications for the debate about racial disparities.

Dr. Robert Epstein: For many years, you've been challenging some of our most basic notions of intelligence. What's wrong with our concepts of intelligence?

Dr. Robert Sternberg: The professional concept of intelligence is much worse than the lay one. The problem is that many professionals have bought into the notion that intelligence is one single thing--an IQ, a g-factor. Our research pretty strongly shows that to be false.

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Epstein: Why do so many professionals cling to the concept of one intelligence?

Sternberg: Psychologists and educators keep finding a g-factor. Maybe that's because they keep using the same intelligence tests. Once you have a set of assumptions, you design studies to confirm what you already believe.

Epstein: So it's that old notion that intelligence is what intelligence tests measure--and nothing more?

Sternberg: Exactly. And it's a poor notion. We know that intelligence tests predict only about 10% of the variation in real life success. But what's the other 90%? Let's look at how people succeed in their lives and construct a test to measure those things.

For example, a lot of people have common sense but didn't get A's in school, while some people excel in academics but have little common sense. Common sense may be a form of practical intelligence that is not emphasized in schools, so we've designed tests of such intelligence for managers, salespeople, teachers, secretaries and other occupations. These tests predict success on the job as well as or better than do IQ tests.

Epstein: How about in schools, where the IQ test first started?

Sternberg: Maybe there are kids who have good common sense and could do well in school but are being taught in a way that is geared toward kids who are more memory and analysis oriented. So we designed a test for high school and elementary school students that measures IQ, memory and analytical abilities as well as creative and practical thinking skills.

Epstein: How might this new view of intelligence change things?

Sternberg: Once you get rid of the notion of the general intelligence factor [g-factor], you might find that the need for things such as affirmative action goes away, since kids who seemed like they didn't have much ability had abilities that we just weren't tapping into. Kids who are white and upper middle class and go to so-called "good schools" tend to perform best on analytical portions of IQ tests. But the students who do well on the creative and practical sections are much more diverse ethnically, socioeconomically and educationally

Epstein: Isn't there more prestige in traditional intellectual skills?

Sternberg: It depends. Einstein was distinguished for his creative ability, as were Mozart, Darwin and Picasso. There are a lot of people with traditional IQ-type skills who just disappear into the woodwork. Studies show that the people who really contribute to society usually have high levels of creative and practical skills.

Epstein: But aren't you talking about pigeonholing people?

Sternberg: Our view is the opposite. Our research has shown that all three kinds of abilities---academic, creative and practical--can be improved. Abilities are modifiable, flexible. When we give a test, the result isn't indelible; rather, it says where you are now. And that serves as a basis for where you can go.

For more on Sternberg's views on intelligence, pick up his book Successful Intelligence (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Adapted by Ph.D.

Robert Epstein is University Research Professor at United States International University and host of radio's nationally syndicated PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.

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