Books in Review
The Triarchic Mind: A New Theory of Human Intelligence
By Robert J. Sternberg
Viking, 40 West 23rd St., New York, N.Y. 10010;
54 pp., $19.95 cloth.
Even though we all suspect that iq tests do not really measure intelligence and that the idea of intelligence itself is a slippery concept, we often succumb to the lure of numbers and the mystique of the test makers.
We call children "overachievers" when their grades are high and their iq scores are average; we might just as well call them "undertesters." When young children appear bright, we say that they "ought to be tested," as if such testing would reveal something new. We reject applicants for graduate school on the basis of their scores on "aptitude tests" (really just intelligence tests under a different name), even when they have earned A's in their courses and produced creative scholarly work--the capacity for which is precisely what the tests, at best, are supposed to predict.
Robert J. Sternberg, professor of psychology at Yale University, wants to weaken the role of traditional iq tests in education and culture. In The Triarchic Mind, he not only criticizes existing programs but also outlines several new approaches to understanding and measuring intelligence.
In the broad theoretical framework to which the title of his book alludes, Mr. Sternberg postulates three "arches" of intelligence: the ''internal world"--or actual mental processes--of the individual, the influence of the individual's experience on his thinking, and the "context" of intelligence--its relationship to the demands of the external world.
While Mr. Sternberg outlined this theory in his more scholarly volume Beyond iq, he here summarizes new findings--from both his own research and that of others--and reviews recent literature on the subject, with particular attention to anthropology.
Mr. Sternberg's recommendations are sensible, and his research is well conducted and interesting. But his framework itself is arbitrary, and it is all-encompassing only because it is loose.
In the "internal world" subtheory, Mr. Sternberg analyzes the components of thinking. Citing his extensive laboratory study of such functions as "encoding" and "inferring" in solving problems, he suggests that the same components are present in all mental tasks--inside and outside the laboratory.
Indeed, he seems to suppose that two processes called by the same name must themselves be the same. But this assumption appears farfetched when, for example, he applies the term "inference" both to discovering the relation between two terms in an analogy problem and--more traditionally--to drawing a conclusion in a logic problem. What isn't inference?
Mr. Sternberg says that these mental processes can be improved through practice. And as he did in his earlier book, Intelligence Applied, he provides many exercises--from geometric analogies to clever brain-teasers--on which readers can practice.
All the evidence I know, however, implies that practice by itself affects performance only with the kinds of problems on which it is given--even when the processes in question really are the same. If we aim at extending performance, we must not simply provide practice but teach students to apply new ways of thinking in a variety of situations. Mr. Sternberg has not provided any data that contradict this view.
A danger here is that teachers will seize on Mr. Sternberg's assertions to justify exercises with meaningless materials on "basic mental processes" such as finding similarities and differences, classifying, or identifying relationships. Such training is a waste of time. The improvements it sometimes seems to cause would occur anyway.
Also included in the "internal world" subcategory are the "metacomponents" of intelligence--those processes involved in the intentional monitoring and control of thinking.
Mr. Sternberg in this section makes a number of wide-ranging recommendations intended to help us manage our mental life. Much of this advice follows common sense: "Be receptive rather than resistant to adverse feedback"; "consider alternative steps to a solution before choosing any one set of them."
But other suggestions simply restate a goal without telling us how to achieve it: "Choose steps that are the right size for the problem, neither too small nor too large"; select the information that is relevant and ignore what is irrelevant.
And some of Mr. Sternberg's advice subtly supports errors in judgment. For example, his recommendation to "consider whether the goal toward which you are striving is really the one you want to reach" reinforces the widespread error of single-mindedness--making decisions on the basis of a single goal and ignoring tradeoffs.
The problem is that these suggestions for self-improvement, while not bad as such maxims go, are not justified by a sound theory of rationality or good thinking; they have come off the top of Mr. Sternberg's head. His "theory" is mostly a classification scheme, an outline. And his experiments--clever though they are--have little bearing on the advice that he gives.
In evaluating experience as an aspect of intelligence, Mr.Sternberg asserts that "two aspects of an individual's experience with tasks are particularly relevant to understanding intelligence: performing a task when it is relatively novel and rendering that performance automatic."
Reasonable enough. But why are these two aspects chosen for emphasis rather than others that might have been selected: the relative importance for intelligence of visual versus verbal experiences, for example, or productive versus critical experiences?
The contextual aspect of intelligence in Mr. Sternberg's theory rests on his broad definition of intelligence as "purposive adaptation to, selection of, and shaping of real-world environments relevant to one's life and abilities." To show how such adaptation can be measured, Mr. Sternberg has designed new tests of the "tacit knowledge" of academics, business managers, and salespeople.
He argues--reasonably--that success and failure have at least as much to do with knowledge of specific techniques of self-management as with iq For example, he suggests, successful middle-level managers see willingness to take extraordinary risks without hesitation as more important than critical-thinking ability in determining their reputation. Likewise, successful academics take the trouble to find out what kind of publications will be most helpful in advancing their careers.
Tests of such knowledge may be helpful in predicting whether managers will please their colleagues and whether academics will win tenure easily. But I wonder how well they predict whether managers will contribute to the production of useful goods and services, or whether academics will advance knowledge and educate their students. "Success" itself is an elusive concept.
Since culture and socialization affect intelligence and iq tests measure adaptation to a particular cultural environment, Mr. Sternberg contends, these tests are unfair.
But before making judgments about "fairness," we must determine the purpose of such testing. I.q tests are useful for selecting students who can learn more quickly in slower classes than in classes that proceed at the normal pace, for selecting children who will benefit from acceleration, and for selecting people who will perform well in certain jobs. (I know of no justification, however, for using iq tests to select children for enrichment, as distinct from acceleration.)
Perhaps the real problem is that we want our concept of intelligence--and the tests that measure it--to serve contradictory purposes. On the one hand, we think of intelligence as innate potential. Because this kind of intelligence should not be affected by education, we should be able to use it as a benchmark to judge the educational achievement of each child. I.q tests are unfair as measures of innate potential because they are affected by culture.
On the other hand, we also think of intelligence as a goal of education--a standard toward which we should strive. In this spirit, we use aptitude tests as indices of educational effectiveness. If they in fact measured innate potential, we would decry the fact that test scores are rising while grades--the true measure of academic achievement?--stay the same.
But we applaud the rise in test scores because we think they reflect educational effectiveness. Of course, aptitude tests were not designed for this purpose at all.
We cannot discover the nature of intelligence as a goal of education by looking at the determinants of outward success in academia, business, or other fields, any more than we can find it by looking at aptitude tests. To base our concept on outward success is to accept the standards of those who define success--to give the status quo the standing of scientific theory.
Instead, we should concern ourselves directly with the standards of thinking that will help individuals achieve their own goals, whatever they may be.
While many of these standards--particularly open-mindedness and thoroughness--are embodied in Mr. Sternberg's "metacomponents," he does not explain their justification.
We need to separate theories of intelligence focused on potential from those focused on standards. Mr. Sternberg has made a move in this direction, but others have already gone farther.
Jonathan Baron, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Rationality and Intelligence and Thinking and Deciding.