Beyond I.Q.: The Theory of Successful Intelligence

Researchers have become more and more critical of psychological theories of intelligence that ignore differences among the contexts within which human beings live and develop. Many scientists now see intelligence as an interaction between, on the one hand, certain proclivities or potentials and, on the other hand, the opportunities and constraints that characterize a particular cultural setting.

According to the influential theory of the American psychologist and psychometrician Robert J. Sternberg, intelligence is strongly connected to the varying contexts around people. In other words, it is expressed in terms of adaptive, goal-directed behaviour. In 1985 (two years after the proposal of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner), Sternberg develops a Triarchic Theory of Intelligence in order to provide a more comprehensive description of intelligence competence than traditional cognitive theories of human ability. He argues that we function intellectually on the basis of three aspects:

  • Componential (also referred to as analytical), which refers to analytical thinking and to people who are good at taking tests;
  • Experimental (also referred to as creative), which relates to creative thinking;
  • Contextual (also referred to as practical), seen in people who are ‘street smart’

Practical intelligence involves adaptation to the environment to maximize fit in the context (adaptive intelligence). Sternberg believes that analytical, creative and practical intelligences can be increased through training and that a person who is not as high in one type can make up for it with high levels of one or both of the other.

The Triarchic Theory does not argue against the validity of a general intelligence factor. Instead, the theory claims that general intelligence is part of the analytic intelligence and only by considering all three aspects of intelligence can the full range of intelligence functioning be completely understood. The Triarchic Theory has been updated and renamed ‘The Theory of Successful Intelligence’ by Sternberg himself. Success can be achieved by using combinations of analytical, creative and practical intelligence. The theory predicts that ‘intelligent’ people will identify their strengths and weaknesses, make the most of their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.

In his book, Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determines Success in Life, he underlines the idea that the negative expectations on the part of the authority figures represent one of the biggest obstacles to the development of what he calls “successful intelligence”. In his opinion, successfully intelligent people defy negative expectations, even when these expectations arise from low scores on I.Q. or similar tests. They do not let other people’s assessment stop them from achieving their goals. They find their path and they pursue it, realizing that there will be obstacles along the way and that surmounting these obstacles is part of their challenge. Successful intelligent people are self-efficacious. They have a “can-do attitude”, carefully formulating strategies for problem solving. In particular, they focus on long-range planning rather than rushing in and later having to rethink their strategies.

As a response to a narrow outlook on the intellectual processes, Robert J.Sternberg proposed a much broader view of the definition of intelligence than other theorists. Once this more pragmatic perspective taken, intelligence has become a functional concept.  Sternberg’s major contribution to psychology had great educational implications due to the fact that he looked beyond I.Q., offering teachers deep insights into understanding the great variety of individual differences among their students.

Sternberg, R.J. (1985), Beyond I.Q.: A Triarchic Theory of Multiple Intelligences, New  York:  Cambridge University Press
Sternberg, R.J. (1997), Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence
Determines Success in Life, New York: Plume
Sternberg, R.J., Salter, W. (1982), Handbook of Human Intelligence, New York:  Cambridge University Press


prof. Iuliana-Alina Muntean

Liceul Teoretic I.C. Brătianu, Hațeg (Hunedoara) , România
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