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Interview with Dr. Sternberg
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.I prefer to refer to it as "successful intelligence." And the reason is that the emphasis is on the use of your intelligence to achieve success in your life. So I define it as your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your sociocultural context-Meaning that people have different goals for themselves, and for some it's to get very good grades in school and to do well on tests, and for others it might be to become a very good basketball player or actress or musician. So, it's your skill in obtaining what you want in life within your sociocultural context [which] means that if you want to be an axe murderer it wouldn't count--by capitalizing on your strengths and compensating for, or correcting, your weaknesses. And what that means is that people differ in their personal profiles. Some people are good at one thing; some are good at another thing. And if you look at people who attain success by their own standards, they're generally people who found something they do really well. And it can be very different things for different people. For some, it's doing well on IQ tests, or SATs. For others it might be playing basketball. For others it might be being a politician. So they capitalize on their strengths. And the things that they don't do so well-They find ways either to compensate, meaning that they perhaps have someone else do the things they don't do well, or they have them done by electronic means or whatever. Or correcting their weaknesses- They make themselves better at whatever it is they didn't do so well, by adapting to, shaping and selecting environments, which means that some of the time you change yourself to fit the environment. That's adaptation. So if you started a new job or a new relationship, part of the time you change yourself to fit the job or to fit the relationship. And shaping means that part of the time you change the environment that is. So you might try to modify the job to make it a better fit to you, or you might try to change the relationship to make it more what you hoped it would be. And selection means that sometimes you just get out. Being successfully intelligent means knowing when you're in the wrong place at the wrong time--the wrong job, the wrong relationship, the wrong place to live---Um, through a combination of analytical, creative and practical abilities. You need creative skills to come up with ideas; you need analytical abilities to know whether they're good ideas-to evaluate the ideas-and you need practical abilities to make your ideas work and to persuade other people that your ideas are worth listening to. So that's the definition.
I first became interested in the study of intelligence when I was a young kid-in early elementary school. I did poorly on IQ tests. I like to believe because I was test anxious. The school psychologist would come into the room-it was in the 1950s-and give us these group IQ tests and I would freeze up, especially when I heard other kids turning the page and I was still on the first or second problem. And I did so poorly that when I was in sixth grade I was sent back to a fifth grade classroom to retake the fifth grade test. So it was really kind of pathetic. And I became interested in the question of why I did so poorly on IQ tests. And I maintained that interest in elementary school. And the first project I did on intelligence-the first concrete manifestation of the interest-was when I was in seventh grade. I was about thirteen. And I did a science project on mental testing. And part of that was to create my own IQ test, which you've probably heard of-The Sternberg Test of Mental Abilities, or STOMA, as it's popularly called. And the other part of the project was I found the Stanford - Binet IQ test in the library in my town in the adult section (which I entered for the first time). And I thought it would be good practice for me to give the test to some of my classmates. So, the first classmate I gave it to was a-a girl. I--One of the things-although I didn't do well on IQ tests, one of the things I am good at (capitalization on strengths, as I was talking about) is social intelligence. Something I--I'm very penetrating in terms of understanding other people's motives, and I was interested in her romantically. And so I figured a really good way to break the ice, since I was kind of shy, would be to give her an IQ test. So I gave her the test. And the good news was that she did very well and the bad news was that she didn't seem to acquire an interest in me. So anyone listening to this tape-good practical advice would be if you are romantically interested in someone, giving them an IQ test doesn't work.
And the second person I gave it to was a guy I had known in Cub Scouts. And I also made a poor selection in him because unbeknownst to me, he was mentally ill. And the technical term--since I assume the audience listening to this is psychologically oriented-the technical term in DSM-IV is that he was a tattletale. Because he tattled on me to his mother. And I learned at that point that being a tattletale is inherited. It's genetically passed because she then told the junior high school guidance counselor. And it turned out that being a tattletale is also contagious, because the junior high school guidance counselor then told the head school psychologist. And he came to my school and bawled me out for 15 minutes, ending with if I ever brought the book into school again he personally would burn it. So, I figured that, well, if he's making such a big deal out of it, it must be really interesting. So I stayed with it. He actually suggested that I study intelligence in rats, although I don't think he was offering himself as a subject, necessarily. And so the interest continued from that.
As an undergraduate my principal mentor was Endel Tulving , who was at Yale when I was a senior. And he taught me many things, but I think the-perhaps the most important one-was that if a lot of people believe something, not only does it not make it true, but you should be very suspicious of it. So, one of his signature trademarks in his research was if almost everyone believes X, then he would show that not-X is true. So, I later started doing work on creativity and did work with Todd Lubart and other people on creativity is defying the crowd, and I think that I internalized that attitude from Endel Tulving . He was also somebody who, I think, wasn't just a scholar, but as a person was really a superb person. Really had a lot of different interests, and very broad in his life.
My graduate mentor was Gordon Bower, who was also terrific-from whom I learned a lot. And I think one of the most important things I learned from him is the importance of leadership in a field. That there are lots of studies anyone can do, and what you have to do is be somewhat picky in the studies you decided to do, and do ones that you hope will really have impact on the field. And he was remarkably supportive even though his interests didn't really overlap with mine at all. (He did memory research). He supported my work off his grant. He was a very good mentor, and let me do what I want. And I discovered that that's worth a lot--that a lot of mentors want you to do their thing and not your thing.
And then the third, I think, major influence was Wendell Garner, who was a senior professor when I was an assistant professor. And again, I learned many things from him.
The other really good piece of advice I got from him [Wendell Garner] was my first year--I did a really junky study. Talk about junky studies! Um, it was a study that I though tested an aspect of his work, and showed it to be wrong. I thought . And I then gave a talk at Bell Labs on the work, and there was a flaw. It's the only time in my career when there was just one absolutely fatal flaw. I'm not saying my work hasn't been flawed- It has been, of course. Everyone's is in one way or another. Mine certainly has been. But it had a fatal flaw, and Saul Sternberg (no relation to me) pointed it out. And here I was giving one of the earliest colloquia of my career. You know, I just wished the floor would open up and I could fall down. So embarrassing. Um, the whole thing was wrong. So, then it was rejected by a journal. So I went in to talk to Garner. And a lot of senior faculty would really hold it against you- You know, "Here's this first year assistant professor. He's trying to show my work is wrong." You know like, "Three years later let's fire him." If they wait three years. And he said to me, well, that there was a lesson for me, and that is that you're judged in the field by the value of your positive contribution. It's not your ability to knock someone else down, but your ability to show something positive that's new. And one of the-one of the, unfortunately from my point of view-characteristics of the field of intelligence is that there is a lot of negative work that tries to shoot other people down, or that-There's a lot of negative work and there's a lot of replicatory work that shows the same thing for the 8632 nd time, and there's some people in the field who simply will not get bored. I mean it doesn't matter how many times the same thing is shown. They can show it again, and as long as a journal will publish it, it gives them a sense of meaning. So, the important lesson from him was don't waste your time ticking other people, and don't waste your time doing studies that don't have something really new to add-that are positive and say something different.
I started off doing work on cognitive or information processing models of intelligence, and thought I was asking the right question when I tried to understand the mental processes underlying scores on IQ tests. And then I began to realize that that was the wrong question to ask. Because there are people who-I would meet people- There are a lot of these in psychology, or in science-who are very good on IQ tests. And, that's what they're good at. I mean, with their studies are like, you know, show that their good on IQ- They're very nice analytically, and they're smart studies in an IQ test sense. They're--They're tight. But I kept encountering people who were analytically smart but not creative. They were good at analyzing other people's ideas, picking apart ideas-sort of refining what's there, but not at coming up with their own ideas. They just weren't very original. A lot of the-I mean, I was just reading an article by Arthur Jensen , which I liked quite a bit. It was an interview with the Mega Society, and he-I liked it so much that I wrote to him, and he said that he was giving a talk "Well if you're so smart why aren't you a genius?" The Mega Society is for people with IQs of 175 or above. And the thing I noticed is that none of the people who's names they gave in this society were people I'd never heard of. So here are these people who are, you know like, really , very , very high IQ-five standard deviations above the mean. And who the hell are they? So you can get people-I- That was my experience at Yale. That there were-There were many people-Many people were selected by our system in the United States for being very good in analytical abilities, and they have reasonably successful careers. Rena Subotnik's study showed that, the Terman study showed that- That people who have high IQs do do well in society. I mean, there are some people who say "I don't believe that." And that's crap. Of course they do. I mean, the society is certainly set up in a way that if someone has an IQ that's pretty high- They have a better chance of success. But , then there's a big difference between being a reasonably successful accountant or lawyer or scientist and being a great one. And what both Terman and Subotnik found, studying these very high IQ people is that most of them didn't really do the really great stuff. So, then I started studying the creative side of intelligence. And I realized, well, then there are these creative people [who] are very frustrated because they can't convince anyone to listen to them. They, you know, they have these wonderful ideas and nobody pays any attention. So I started studying the practical side of intelligence, and that led to the triarchic theory. And that stayed around for a while. And then I realized that that didn't do it either because it's-it' s really about figuring out what you do well. It's about capitalizing on strengths and figuring out what you don't do well, and compensating and correcting for weaknesses- That you could be high in all three, but if you can't leverage your strengths you're in trouble. Well then I started studying creativity, because I realized creativity is not just about the intelligence part. Intelligence-creative intelligence is a part of creativity, but I believe in large part creativity is in an attitude toward life. It's in a set of- It's in a frame of decision-making, where you're willing to take risks and defy the crowd and surmount obstacles and do things that other people are just not willing to do. It's about having courage. It's about tolerating ambiguity. And these are the kinds of traits that Barron-Frank Barron and others have identified. But they're not intellectual traits. They're-Creative intelligence then became the base, or part of, the broader theory of creativity. And then I became interested in another question, and that is during the Clinton administration I got interested in the question of why smart people do such stupid things. Um, Clinton was a Yale graduate, Rhodes Scholar. Brilliant guy. But he was doing some real dumb stuff. And so were his opponents. I mean, so did Nixon. It's not about- We all do . It's-- All of us do dumb stuff. And so I got interested in the question of why smart people can be so stupid. And then I started realizing on the flip- It's really foolishness. And so I constructed a theory of foolishness. And I realized the flip side of that is wisdom, and that intelligence is a piece of wisdom, but that it also involves creativity and knowledge and most importantly, using your intelligence, creativity and knowledge in combination for a common good. By integrating your own interests, with other people's interests, with a larger interest. So, and that theory is now called WICS-Wisdom, Intelligence, Creativity, Synthesized-and it's become a theory of leadership. So, I started off studying IQ tests, and the intelligence thread has stayed through the work, but now it's a smaller part of it.
My APA presidential address, which was just published in the American Psychologist this month (July, 2004) is on culture and intelligence. And one project that I'm hoping to get started is a project on Romany people-gypsies. Studying practical intelligence in Romany communities in Slovakia --It's not funded yet, but I have a consortium of people who are interested-because they have tremendous practical adaptive skills for their own communities which, when you go outside the communities are just not valued at all. One of the problems in the intelligence field is that the tests tend to be constructed by people to measure what they themselves are good at. One of the things I think we've shown is that if you construct tests that are appropriate for other communities, the people who are good on our tests may not be able to answer any of the questions on their tests. And so one wonders well, why should they answer the questions on your test? And so that's something I'm very excited about. This is a community that is very large worldwide, but that has been marginalized and rejected by societies since the 12 th century, really--when they-roughly when they came to Europe from India . So that's a problem.
The book Psychologists Defying The Crowd is a book I edited. It was published by APA books. And it was a follow-up in some ways to a book that Todd Lubart and I wrote in 1995 called Defying The Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity . And my interest in this particular volume was that-was--the message it would give to young people-that when you're young you're kind of afraid to defy the crowd. Because it's very difficult to do. The short term rewards are for doing what other people do-doing things in paradigm where you get a lot of people patting you on the back and saying "That's very nice." You know, "I agree with you." Psychologists, and even scientists in general have a very high need for affiliation. Most of them were rejects and dorks when they were young, so now as adults they're trying to make up for being dweebs when they were young, and find people with whom they can finally can affiliate in their adulthood. So the odd thing is, that whereas when they were young they were kind of separate, now I think when they get to be adults they overcompensate and end up doing what everyone else does-and feeling good about it. But as a result, not making the optimal contribution they could make. So, what I wanted to show, or what I hoped to show, was that psychologists who didn't play that game-who really stood for something, who were willing to take the brick bats and the ridicule, the articles rejected, the grant proposals rejected, the articles telling them they're crazy-If you looked at who they were, they were actually the people who were the greats in the field. And the ones who were the affiliaters -who , you know, got a lot of pats on the back in the short term often were not the ones who made the greatest contributions in the long term. So if you look at the contributors to that book, they're all people who one way or another defied the crowd, but became I think, kind of giants in the field. I mean you know, I'm doing this interview at APA, and the person who won the Lifetime Achievement Award just a couple of hours before I did this interview was Al Bandura , who's a great example of that-who repeatedly in his career has said "Look. There's a different way of looking at problems." Whether it was with his sort of combining cognitive and behavioral methods, or his views on self-efficacy. Last year the winner (when I was APA president) was George Miller, who to a large extent changed the face of the field with his work on information processing in a time when behaviorism was king. So in the short run you get a lot of grief, but in the long run, the people who's contributions last are the ones who-- I believe-who defy the crowd. And the people who just show what everyone else has shown and get lots of pats on the back from their colleagues-In the long run I think they're largely forgotten. But it's hard to do what the crowd defiers do, because a lot of the time you're alone, and ridiculed.
I don't think anything I've done has had a major impact-yet. I mean, it may someday. But, we-for example we're doing this Rainbow Project now, which is funded by the College Board, and is an expansion-It takes the SAT as it exists and then it adds tests that we have constructed of creative and practical skills. And what we've found is that the Rainbow measures in our fair sample of about 1000 students from 15 different high schools and colleges roughly doubled prediction of college success and substantially decreased ethnic group differences. So that I think has real potential in terms of future college admissions testing. But I don't think I've done has really caught on. I mean, you know, there are a few schools-We have had grants and schools have used our triarchic model for teaching, and we've done some testing. But in terms of societal impact I think it's been quite small.
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Last Modified: 29 April 2018