Theories of Intelligence in Psychology

Here are some of the major theories of intelligence that have emerged during the last 100 years.

General Intelligence

British psychologist Charles Spearman (1863–1945) described a concept he referred to as general intelligence or the g factor. After using a technique known as factor analysis to examine some mental aptitude tests, Spearman concluded that scores on these tests were remarkably similar.

People who performed well on one cognitive test tended to perform well on other tests, while those who scored badly on one test tended to score badly on others. He concluded that intelligence is a general cognitive ability that can be measured and numerically expressed.

  • Associative memory: The ability to memorize and recall
  • Numerical ability: The ability to solve arithmetic problems
  • Perceptual speed: The ability to see differences and similarities among objects
  • Reasoning: The ability to find rules
  • Spatial visualization: The ability to visualize relationships
  • Verbal comprehension: The ability to define and understand words
  • Word fluency: The ability to produce words rapidly

Theory of Multiple Intelligences

One of the more recent ideas to emerge is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner proposed that the traditional idea of intelligence, based on IQ testing, did not fully and accurately depict a person’s abilities. His theory proposed eight different intelligences based on skills and abilities that are valued in different cultures:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: The ability to control your body movements and to handle objects skillfully
  • Interpersonal intelligence: The capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations, and desires of others
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: The capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs, and thinking processes
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: The ability to think conceptually and abstractly, and the capacity to discern logically or numerical patterns
  • Musical intelligence: The ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch, and timbre
  • Naturalistic intelligence: The ability to recognize and categorize animals, plants, and other objects in nature
  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence: Well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings, and rhythms of words
  • Visual-spatial intelligence: The capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Psychologist Robert Sternberg defined intelligence as “mental activity directed toward purposive adaptation to, selection, and shaping of real-world environments relevant to one’s life.”

While he agreed with Gardner that intelligence is much broader than a single, general ability, he suggested that some of Gardner’s types of intelligence are better viewed as individual talents. Sternberg proposed what he referred to as “successful intelligence,” which involves three different factors:

  • Analytical intelligence: Your ability to evaluate information and solve problems
  • Creative intelligence: Your ability to come up with new ideas
  • Practical intelligence: Your ability to adapt to a changing environment




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