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What Is the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Traditional intelligence quotient (IQ) testing measures the analytical abilities of a subject in areas like logical reasoning and mathematical proficiency. While the resulting IQ score is often the benchmark for evaluating the intelligence of an individual, only a fraction of person's true functionality can be predicted by this number. The triarchic theory of intelligence addresses this deficient by adding creative and practical intelligences to estimate the actual potential of an individual.

To some, the aspect of the triarchic theory of intelligence that is most likely to measure life success is contextual intelligence. Often called practical intelligence or common sense, contextual intelligence is the acquisition of information and skills that are needed during an individual's daily life. In short, it is a person's ability to apply his or her knowledge to the real world. Individuals with “street smarts” are often very contextually intelligent.

By the standards of the triarchic theory of intelligence, a professor of meteorology who does not take an umbrella on a rainy day would probably have an above-average IQ but be lacking in practical intelligence. It is likely that the professor would be able to analyze atmospheric conditions then logically reason that precipitation is probable. By not taking an umbrella, however, he or she would exhibit an inability to apply his or her knowledge sensibly.

The experiential intelligence facet of the triarchic theory of intelligence can be seen as the bridge between analytical and practical thinking. Creativity enables an individual to take acquired information and bend it to fit new situations. As such, people with high creative intelligence are often very adaptive and forward thinking. These individuals can be often be found in industries like music, advertising, and journalism.

Creative intelligence tends to be highly specialized and can frequently be linked to other aspects of the triarchic theory. Writers, for example, tend to have high creativity in addition to elevated scores on the verbal portions of analytical intelligence tests. Conversely, inventors are often both experientially and practically gifted. It is theorized that the presence of creative intelligence may explain the appearance of savantism within groups of individuals who have been labeled as severely intellectually and functionally impaired.

The triarchic theory of intelligence has endured very heavy scrutiny. In many psychological communities, creativity is regarded as a personality trait rather than an intellectual process and practical aptitude or as an adaptive skill. Even among its proponents, some think that the theory is limited by the exclusion of the emotional intelligence quotient.

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