Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Webster (1996) defines intelligence as the “capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity” (p. 990). This definition implies that intelligence is both multifaceted (i.e., captures many aspects of mental ability) and reflective of differences in capacity, ability, and aptitude among individuals. Yet this definition is not necessarily embraced by all scientists. In fact, there is no consensus on the definition of intelligence among professionals who study it (e.g., psychologists, educators, and computer scientists), and many attempts have been made to define and generate supporting theories about exactly what constitutes intelligence. Among the many theories of intelligence are those that define intelligence as a cognitive “system.” The overarching assumption of these systemic theories is that intelligence is not a single entity but a multifaceted structure and that traditional definitions of intelligence have been excessively narrow. The quest for theories that reflect the variety of ways in which humans think, learn, and adapt to their environment was initiated in the early 1980s in the United States. Most notable among systemic theories of intelligence is Robert Stern-berg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1996). Other examples are Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1993) and the theory of Emotional Intelligence, initially presented in the scientific literature by Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer (Salovey & Mayer, 1990) and popularized by Daniel Goleman (Goleman, 1995).

Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence was developed about the same time as Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Rejecting traditionally narrow definitions of intelligence, Sternberg defined intelligence as mental activity central to one's life in real-world environments; individuals “succeed” in life when they use mental skills to adapt to, select, and shape external environments. Correspondingly, in the late 1990s, Sternberg changed the name of the theory to the Theory of Successful Intelligence. As per its original name, the theory comprises three types of intelligence: analytical (also referred to as componential); practical (also referred to as contextual) and creative (also referred to as experiential). Analytical intelligence is evoked while analyzing, evaluating, criticizing, reasoning, and judging. Practical intelligence is used while implying, implementing, and using. Creative intelligence is manifested while discovering, inventing, dealing with novelty, and creating. The theory predicts that “intelligent” people will identify their strengths and weaknesses, make the most of their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Individuals are not limited to strength in only one of the three areas; both integrated and uneven profiles of intelligence are possible.

Sternberg's work on the Theory of Successful Intelligence unfolded in three phases. The first phase was the validation of the fundamental importance of different abilities and the collection of supporting evidence from different cultures and societies. This work took place in a number of countries (e.g., China, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Russia, Taiwan, Tanzania, the United States, and Zambia) and in a variety of settings, both educational and occupational. These studies provided compelling evidence that the focus on traditionally-defined cognitive abilities (i.e., interpreting intelligence through the so-called general factor of intelligence, or g, as something common to all tests of intelligence) underestimates the importance of practical and creative abilities in human cultures. In one study, for example, Sternberg and his colleagues found that knowledge of herbal medicine among rural Kenyan children was perceived by adults in their communities as equal to or more indicative of cognitive competence and, thus, as valuable or more highly valued, given the ecological conditions of a relatively isolated African village, than the children's performance on conventional tests of g (such as the Raven Matrices) or their achievement at school. A set of studies has been conducted to investigate implicit theories of intelligence in laypeople around the world. People from different cultures were found to differ widely in their emphasis of what they view as intelligence behavior. For example, even in the United States, people in some cultures, such as Latinos, value and emphasize social functioning facets of intelligence more than other cultures, such as Anglos. Around the globe, people also differ in their taste for when and how intelligence behaviors should be manifested. For example, Taiwanese Chinese appear to value a sensitivity to when one's intelligence should be shown off and when it should be concealed.

The second phase included studies designed to develop valid and reliable methods to assess analytical, practical, and creative abilities. This domain of research combined multiple efforts to design different instruments that can capture these abilities in both educational and employment settings. As an illustration, Sternberg and his colleagues worked with the U.S. Army to quantify the practical abilities of U.S. officers by capturing, describing. and measuring their “tacit” knowledge of military leadership so that this knowledge could be integrated into the training of military cadets preparing for future leadership roles. Similarly, the theory has been realized in the creation of different assessment instruments. An early version of such an instrument was referred to as The Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test, or the STAT. The STAT had three subtests, analytical, practical, and creative, and contained items in two formats, multiple choice and essays. The latest generation of this instrument is referred to as the Aurora Battery.

The battery is designed for children in elementary and middle schools and captures their analytical, practical, and creative abilities in the domains of dealing with and manipulating words, numbers, and images (i.e., tapping into verbal, mathematical, and spatial representations). The Aurora Battery contains four components, engaging multiple methods and multiple informants. Specifically, it includes (a) group-administered assessment of abilities, which are captured by multiple-choice, right/wrong responses, and open-ended items; (b) a teacher rating scale; (c) a parent interview; and (d) a portfolio-based observation schedule (i.e., a collection of one-on-one assessments in which children are given a chance to generate specific products in situations modeling real life).

The third phase was designed to apply the Theory of Successful Intelligence to the educational environment. Sternberg and his colleagues completed multiple studies in U.S. schools in a variety of subject matters across multiple grade levels. The main thrust of this research was to demonstrate the value of multiple pedagological approaches that ensure that children are taught in ways that challenge and develop their analytical, practical, and creative abilities. Pedagogical intervention studies based on the theory were carried out across different levels of schooling (elementary, middle, and high) and across a number of academic subjects (e.g., mathematics, science, language arts, social studies). In one of the largest studies, a triarchic theory-based curriculum was administered to a few thousand children enrolled in fourth grade in various locations in the United States. The curriculum was developed for language arts, mathematics, and sciences; it was based on the national standards and, prior to implementation, was adapted to specifics of requirements of the various states and districts where it was delivered. The study included three other comparison groups, all with a large number of children: (a) a group of children to whom a traditional (i.e., “treatment-as-usual”) curriculum was delivered; (b) a group of children to whom a curriculum based on modern theories of memory was administered; and (c) a group of children who were taught with a curriculum based on theories of critical thinking. In each case, the study group was followed for approximately six months.


Although the profile of results is complex and variable for each domain of studies, there is a strong indication of an overall advantage of triarchic-based teaching. In general, this and similar studies have demonstrated the benefit of this approach: students not only developed competencies in thinking analytically, creatively, and practically, but also improved their performance on standardized tests. Capitalizing on empirical evidence obtained in his research studies, Sternberg has brought his work on the Theory of Successful Intelligence to a policy level. As the Director of the PACE (Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise) Center at Yale University, Sternberg worked with the College Board on developing a triarchic assessment, referred to as the Rainbow Assessment, augmenting the SAT. As Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, within the framework of the Kaleidoscope Project, he ensured that, in addition to scores on standardized tests, assessments of creative and practical abilities are considered in student admission decisions.

Sternberg's theories have two main complements in the literature. The first is Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. This theory (also referred to as the MI theory) was developed at roughly the same time as Sternberg's theory and also assumes the presence of a number of distinct forms of intelligence. Individuals possess these types of intelligence in varying degrees, which establishes their unique cognitive profiles. Like Sternberg's, Gardner's theory is based on the argument that traditional definitions of intelligence do not capture the wide variety of abilities humans display. To support his argument, Gardner analyzed case studies of individuals with unusual talents, such as child prodigies in music or mathematics; reviewed neuropsychological evidence on specialized areas of the brain that process particular types of information; and integrated evolutionary theory and results of psychometric tests.

According to Gardner, there are eight primary forms of intelligence: linguistic (manifested in dealing with spoken or written words); musical (demonstrated in dealing with rhythm, music and hearing); logical-mathematical (invoked while reasoning inductively or deductively and dealing with abstractions and numbers); spatial (engaged in vision and spatial judgment); bodily-kinesthetic (required for movement and doing); interpersonal (needed for interactions with others); intrapersonal (manifested in dealing with self) and naturalistic (demonstrated in dealing with nature, nurturing, and classification). The addition of a ninth form of intelligence, existential (descriptive of the capacity to raise and consider abstract philosophical questions), is still being considered.

Because of its humanistic approach to acknowledging and promoting the value and contributions of each individual student, the theory has been embraced and supported by the educational community around the world. A number of schools and many teachers claim to use this theory as the fundamental framework for their pedagogy. Yet the theory has been widely criticized as well; it has been argued that the theory is based primarily on Gardner's intuition and observations rather than evidence, that there are limited empirical data to support the evidence, that the separation between the constructs of multiple intelligences and personality types is blurry, that the assumption that all students are gifted in something might lead to intellectual relativism, and that there has been no systematic evaluation of the value of the theory in the classroom.

The second complementary stream of research, focused on the construct often called emotional intelligence, is associated with both Sternberg's theories (through his concept of practical intelligence) and Gardner's theories (through his concept of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences). Emotional intelligence is typically referred to as the ability, capacity, or skill to perceive and register, judge and assess, and manage and act on the emotions of self and others; yet there is currently no consensus definition for this term. The roots of the theory are in the use of the term social intelligence by American psychologist Edward Thorn-dike (Thorndike, 1920), who used this term to refer to the skill of getting along with other people. The term emotional intelligence is associated with the doctoral work of Wayne Payne (Payne, 1985); the systematic research on the construct definition and measurement is linked to Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer (Salovey & Mayer, 1990), and the popularization of the concept is associated with Daniel Goleman (Goleman, 1995). The field of emotional intelligence is relatively new, and a number of psychologists and educators are now working on the definition, assessment, and predictive power of this concept.

These three theories, although differing in detail, are aimed at diversifying the views and values of different abilities and competencies as they are exhibited by members of today's complex societies. All three theories stress the importance of expanding teaching approaches so that they encompass and target abilities and competencies that are distinct from those that only memorize and accumulate new knowledge. Although all three theories have been applied in the field of education, the Theory of Successful Intelligence appears to have accumulated the largest body of empirical evidence in its support.

Sternberg's theory has three major implications for educational psychology. First, teaching for all types of intelligence is important because students need to capitalize on their strongest abilities at the same time they work to develop the abilities in which they demonstrate weaknesses. Second, students' strongest abilities are directly connected to their most amenable learning styles. Teachers should know the learning preferences of their students and, when possible, capitalize on them. Third, because these variable abilities exist there should be many diverse assessments of school achievement, not only those that focus on traditional analytical abilities.

Sternberg's theory is widely referenced in the psychological and education literature and can be found in virtually any psychology or education textbook. Yet in the realm of practical applications, the theory has been regarded critically. The major points of criticism focus on the difficulties of reliably measuring “unconventional” (e.g., creative and practical) abilities and differentiating them psychometrically from abilities measured by more conventional tests of intelligence and achievement. These criticisms, however, are not specific to Sternberg's work and are often extended to the work on MI theory and the theory of Emotional Intelligence. Thus, study in the field continues with the goal of developing psychometrically sound assessment instruments suitable for quantifying these abilities, tracking them developmentally, and demonstrating their importance in educational and occupational contexts.


Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Payne, W. L. (1985). A study of emotion: Developing emotional intelligence; self integration; relating to fear, pain and desire. Dissertation Abstracts International, 47, 203A. (University Microfilms No. AAC 8605928).

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185–211.

Sternberg, R. J. (1996). Successful intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper's Monthly Magazine, 140, 227–235.

Webster's New Universal Dictionaries. (1996). Webster's new universal unabridged dictionary of the English language, fully revised and updated. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

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