Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence was a revolutionary approach to human intelligence which took into account much more than empirical data.

Robert Sternberg developed his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence in the 1980s as an attempt to understand human intelligent in terms of components rather than ability.

Contrary to the beliefs of the time, Sternberg rejected the idea that only one thing guided human intelligence. Sternberg considered intelligence to be made of many different factors, each of which could be tested individually.

Sternberg believed that intelligence was more complicated than this. He considered human intelligence to be a product of environment and an individuals adaptation to their environment. He, therefore, took a cognitive approach to intelligence theory as opposed to the traditional behaviouristic approach.

Sternberg rejected the idea that creativity should be ignored, making it a key aspect in his own theory. He explored different aspects of the human experience which could influence a person’s intelligence and collated them in his theory.

As suggested by the name, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence established three components:

  1. Componential intelligence is considered to be the ability to:

  • Analyze
  • Critique
  • Judge
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Assess
  • Evaluate

Analytical intelligence is often referred to as being book smart and is more in line with traditional IQ tests and academic achievement.

Due to its analytical nature, a person with good componential skills is naturally better at problem-solving. They may not be considered to be skilled in abstract thinking, but they will be naturally gifted in standardized tests.

Analytical intelligence can be tested through the ability to analyze technical problems or by viewing a record of academic achievement.

  1. Experiential  intelligence is considered to be the ability to:

  • Create
  • Invent
  • Discover
  • Imagine if…
  • Suppose that…
  • Predict

Experiential intelligence is the ability to form new ideas and solutions when dealing with unfamiliar situations. This form of thinking is highly creative and uses associations made from previous experiences to produce new solutions.  These skills can be tested through problem-solving and immediate response to a problem.

Experiential intelligence was an area focused on in Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. It can be further split into two categories: novelty and automation.

Novelty creative intelligence explores the ability to deal with a problem for the first time. Automation creative intelligence explores the ability to perform repeated tasks.

  1. Practical  intelligence is considered to be the ability to:

  • Apply
  • Use
  • Put into practice
  • Implement
  • Employ
  • Render practical

Practical intelligence is usually associated with street smarts. It is the ability to adapt within an environment or change the situation as and when is needed.

Also known as common sense, practical intelligence was not considered in intellectual theory before Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Practical intelligence is assessed by an individual’s ability to cope with everyday tasks.

As well as its three components, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence had three sub-theories:

Contextual sub theory: intelligence is interlinked with a person’s environment. This includes a persons ability to adapt to their environment, or pick the best one for them, as well as shape an environment to suit them better.

Experiential sub theory: there is a timeframe of experiences, from novel to automated, to which intelligence can be applied. This is reflected in the experiential intelligence component.

Componential sub theory: There are different mental processes. Meta-components allow us to be able to monitor, control and evaluate our mental processing to make decisions and solve problems.

Performance components allow us to take action on our plans and decisions. Knowledge-acquisition components allow us to learn new information to carry out our plans.

Altogether, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence creates a more heuristic view of intelligence. It paints a much wider and more complex picture of the origins of human intelligence and where it comes from.

Sternberg’s theory paved the way for new and more complex intelligence theories since its creation. Psychologists now accept that intelligence is not something that can be measured by one aspect of personality.


Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence is critiqued due to is unempirical nature. Unlike IQ tests and other theories, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory does not provide a numerical measure of intelligence. Research has shown that those with higher IQs are generally more successful in their career.

Moreover, traditional analytical intelligence has shown to be linked to staying alive and out of jail. These skills are usually associated with street smarts instead of book smarts.

Although there may be some issues with Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, it provided an important alternative to the idea of general intelligence.

With its new and innovative ways of exploring intelligence, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence influenced a new wave of intelligence theory. It considered more than academic achievement as a mark of intelligence and opened the field up to more unempirical measures of intelligence.

Sternberg’s theory is based on the idea that intelligence is not fixed and can fluctuate throughout a lifetime. As such, we may gain intelligence as we grow and adapt to new situations and deal with new problems.

Moreover, it reminds us that academic achievement is not the only mark of intelligence. Just because you aren’t as analytically strong, doesn’t reduce your overall intelligence.



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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Harold Wagner

    Quite interesting. Like Gardner’s theories .
    Who came first?

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