Theories of Intelligence


Even though it’s an age-old concept, there’s still significant disagreement when it comes to defining intelligence.

Are high-achievers in the classroom more intelligent than high-achievers on the sports field? How about people who are hugely successful at business, but flunked all of their exams.

Neisser et al. (1996) define intelligence as someone’s ability to:
* learn and remember new information
* recognise concepts and their relations
* develop their own behaviours in response to learned information

From this definition we can already start to see a wide range of potential measures and expressions of intelligence.

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Spearman’s Two-Factor Theory

Spearman (1927) splits intelligence into two factors:

  1. A General Factor (G) refers to an individual’s general abilities
  2. A Specific Factor (S) refers to an individual’s abilities on a specific task

If Spearman’s theoretical structure of intellgence is correct, the G Factor interacts with the S Factor in producing an outcome of any given task.

Therefore someone might vary slightly in ability on specific tasks, but their overall achievements on different tasks should be roughly similar.

This has been moderately supported in research. Individuals who perform well in a spelling test are are likely to perform better than average on a different test, such as mental maths.

But research (Ozer, 1985) finds that the correlations between scores of specific tests are moderate, at between 0.3 and 0.7.

Spearman argues that this suppports his concept of the G and S Factors interacting.

Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Sternberg (1985) suggests there are three aspects of intelligence:

  1. Componential Intelligence is a person’s ability to plan and execute tasks
  2. Experiential Intelligence is the ability to deal with new situations and learn from past experiences
  3. Contextual Intelligence reflects the adaptation, selection and shaping behaviours required to fit in with the world around us

Sternberg’s model is much more life-centric than Spearman’s Two-Factor Model, which focuses more on measurement by tests such as IQ tests.

Importantly, Sternberg’s concept of Contextual Intelligence helps move us away from intelligence being bound to academic-style tests.

If the society you live in requires strategic hunting skills, but doesn’t require reading skills, are you any less intelligent for not being able to read?

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory

Gardner (1983) develops a theory of intelligences – in the plural – in a similar vein to Sternberg.

However, rather than general divisions – as presented by Sternberg – Gardner divides his forms of intelligence by key strength.

Gardner proposes seven categories of intelligence:

  1. Linguistic Intelligence refers to the use of language. Examples of individuals high in Linguistic Intelligence include authors, poets and playwrights.
  2. Musical Intelligence refers to musical ability. Examples of individuals high in Musical Intelligence include composers, conductors and musicians.
  3. Logical/Mathematical Intelligence refers to someone’s ability to think rationally and is especially connected to the use of numbers. Examples of individuals high in Logical Intelligence include engineers, astronauts and data scientists.
  4. Spatial Intelligence refers to someone’s ability to interpret and manipulate space. Examples of individuals high in Spatial Intelligence include artists, architects and racing drivers.
  5. Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence refers to someone’s ability to control their body and movement. Examples of individuals high in Bodily Intelligence include dancers, yoga practioners, sports professionals.
  6. Intrapersonal Intelligence refers to someone’s ability to understand their own internal needs and desires. Examples of individuals high in Intrapersonal Intelligence include monks and meditation practitioners.
  7. Interpersonal Intelligence refers to someone’s ability to read, understand and manipulate others. Examples of individuals high in Interpersonal Intelligence include chat show hosts and therapists.

Gardner recognises that intelligence isn’t an on-off switch, and whilst different styles will have different strengths and limitations, no single form of intelligence holds a monopoly on the concept.

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About Daniel Edward 65 Articles
Daniel set up Psychology Unlocked in 2016 to support Psychology students in higher and further education. Daniel has a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Psychology, Politics and Sociology from the University of Cambridge.