The Triarchic Theory of Intelligence was formulated by Robert J. Sternberg, a prominent figure in the research of human intelligence. The theory by itself was groundbreaking in that it was among the first to go against the psychometric approach to intelligence and take a more cognitive approach. Sternberg’s definition of intelligence is “(a) mental activity directed toward purposive adaptation to, selection and shaping of, real-world environments relevant to one’s life” (Sternberg, 1985, p. 45), which means that intelligence is how well an individual deals with environmental changes throughout their lifespan. Sternberg’s theory is comprised of three parts: componential, experiential, and practical.

Componential Subtheory:

Sternberg associated the workings of the mind with a series of components. These components he labeled the metacomponents, performance components, Read more...

Practical Subtheory:

Sternberg’s third subtheory of intelligence, called practical or contextual, “deals with the mental activity involved in attaining fit to context” (Sternberg, 1985, p.45). Through the three processes of adaptation, shaping, and selection, individuals create an ideal fit between themselves and their environment.

Adaptation occurs when one makes a change within oneself in order to better adjust to one’s surroundings (Sternberg, 1985). For example, when the weather changes and temperatures drop, people adapt by wearing extra layers of clothing to remain warm.

Shaping occurs when one changes their environment to better suit one’s needs (Sternberg, 1985). A teacher may invoke the new rule of raising hands to speak to ensure that the lesson is taught with least possible disruption.

The process of selection is undertaken when a completely new alternate environment is found to replace the previous, unsatisfying environment to meet the individual’s goals (Sternberg, 1985). For instance, immigrants leave a life of suppression in their homeland and come to America to enjoy liberty and freedom.

The effectiveness with which an individual fits to his or her environment and contends with daily situations reflects degree of intelligence. Sternberg’s third type of giftedness, called practical giftedness, involves the ability to apply synthetic and analytic skills to everyday situations. Practically gifted people are superb in their ability to succeed in any setting (Sternberg, 1997). An exemplar of this type of giftedness is "Celia". Celia did not have outstanding analytical or synthetic abilities, but she “was highly successful in figuring out what she needed to do in order to succeed in an academic environment. She knew what kind of research was valued, how to get articles into journals, how to impress people at job interviews, and the like” (Sternberg, 1997, p.44). Celia’s contextual intelligence allowed her to use these skills to her best advantage.

Sternberg also acknowledges that an individual is not restricted to having excellence in only one of these three intelligences. Many people may possess an integration of all three and have high levels of intelligence threefold.

Robert J. Sternberg is currently the past-president of the American Psychological Association. For justification of this theory, applicable tests, and more information on his innovative studies of intelligence, see his book Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Other publications include Intelligence, Information Processing, and Analogical Reasoning and Metaphors of Mind: Conceptions of Nature of Intelligence.