By Robert Epstein, published on November 1, 1999 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
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
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
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
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.
Epstein: Why do so many professionals cling to the concept of one
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
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
Epstein: How about in schools, where the IQ test first
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
Epstein: How might this new view of intelligence change
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
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