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Refuting Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

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2000 words

I came across this video today from commenter Animekitty on PumpkinPerson’s blog. Animekitty says:

I just happen to think that practicality could be considered a for of intelligence. And that maybe Africans have a form of practicality that is different than the practicality of whites.

Which, as Sternberg explains in the video, sounds a lot to me like visio-spatial intelligence.

His basic thesis is that differing cultures have differing ways in which they quantify intelligence. I will use the examples he uses in the slides in the video.

First, he brings up differing examples of the models of the relationship between culture and intelligence. He brings up Herrnstein and Murray’s model of intelligence, stating that if you want to do a cross-cultural study of intelligence, you would translate the tests of WISC scores between different cultures.

A second model is like Nisbett’s. Using the same translated tests, but the same tests might be involved with different structures and different processes. He says that in Nisbett’s model, differing cultures will see the same things in a differing way, i.e., someone from Asia will what you may see as the background, they may see as the foreground and vice versa.

The third model which Sternberg uses is that there is a common form of intelligence, meaning they have to see what is going on in their lives. Defining their problems, mentally represent them and then allocate resources for a solution, set up a strategy, solve it and model it after your solution. He says the tests you would use would differ in the age of the person.

In model four which is the extreme end of model 1, is that everything is relative. The structures and processes of intelligence and structures are different. Basically, wherever you go you have to start over with different tests between cultures.

  1. Children and adults may be able to do tasks in one cultural/biological context but not in another.

He cites the Nunes study, where Nunes noted that Brazilian street children show that in one context, kids could do the math on the street, but giving them the same thing in a different context, they can’t solve the problems.So it suggests what would seem to be a test depends on the given context.

This was also noted in a study by Lave (1988), who had housewives wherein they were given math problems in the supermarket and were able to do them correctly, but gave differing answers under a different situation.

Some good evidence here. This could also be used as evidence that ‘women aren’t really all that bad at math’. There is currently no evidence to support or refute his theory, but I’m pretty sure I can show where his thinking is due to renaming of processes that we already know.

2. Students may develop contextually important skills at the expense of academic ones.

He cites the study: The Relationship between Academic and Practical Intelligence: A Case Study in Kenyain which he says:

We suggest that, among these villagers, time spent developing academic skills may be perceived as taking away from time that needs to be spent developing practical skills and vice versa. The result is that academic and practical intelligence can develop independently or even at odds with one another.

Seeing as those academic skills correlate highly with a nation’s success or lack thereof, it’s clear that they don’t have the brain power to understand academic things, and therefore gravitate towards something they can understand with their lower IQs.

He then references a study on Kenyan children in a village called Luo. They collected 91 plant remedies from mothers and found that it was shared knowledge that the elders also knew, as well as the children. They’re able to memorize a lot of natural remedies to combat parasitic diseases. He uses this study to say that intelligence is dependent on cultural contexts, and therefore cannot be measured between cultures due to differing definitions of intelligence in those certain cultural contexts.

He says that in our societies, knowledge of natural remedies has no basis in our society. Conversely, those children in Nigeria have to worry about surviving and not school. So Sternberg says that in their cultural context, intelligence is knowing natural remedies to parasitic diseases.

This next part made me laugh. One of the questions on the test was:

“A small child in your family has Homa. She has a sore throat, headache and fever. She has been sick for three days. Which of the following Yadh Nyaluo (Luo herbal medicines) can treat Homa?

i. Chamama. Take the lead and sniff fito (medicine up to nose to sneeze out the illness.)

ii. Kaladali. Take the leaves, drink and fito.

iii. Obuo. Take the leaves and fito.

iv. Ogaka. Take the roots, pound and drink.

v. Ahundo. Take the leaves and fito.

This reminded me so much of the B.I.T.C.H. IQ test (yes, that’s the real name). There are ridiculous questions such as:

“Alley Apple is”

“”I know you, shame” means”

“Main Squeeze means”

“A “handkerchief head” is:”

Which are ridiculous questions in terms of an IQ test. When people say that tests are ‘culturally biased’, I don’t think they mean to use complete gibberish and bastardizing the English language to show that there is a ‘cultural bias’ with IQ tests. There isn’t. Even then, Raven’s Progressive Matrices eliminates any so-called ‘cultural bias’.

Those questions are ridiculous and have nothing to do with intelligence. Of course if you use differing variables for all cultures/societies, you will say hey!! Everyone is smart, no one is dumb! Which has no basis in reality.

3. Students have substantial practical skills that go unrecognized in academic tests.

He cites a study done on a Yup’ik Alaskan community, in which he says that differing peoples will have differing academic and practical skills.

He shows a question from that test, which is similar to the one I have shown above about the Yup’ik villagers. He says that the point is, is what’s hard is in the context of how you grew up. That those who grew up in rural areas would know the answer to the question in comparison to those from urban areas. They found that urban students outperformed Yup’ik students on academic tests. But Yup’ik children outscored urban children on the Yup’ik intelligence test. The urban kids do better on the academic tests, where the Yup’ik kids do better on the practical intelligence tests. He says you have to know certain things for your certain environment you’re in.

The findings were that academic intelligence modestly predicted adaptive skills but not hunting skills in the urban and rural communities. On the other hand, practical intelligence modestly predicted adaptive skills and moderately predicted hunting skills in the rural communities but not the urban ones.

He says the Yup’ik kids know how to get from point A to point B that might be 100 miles away in the tundra in the winter and they’ll get there. If the teachers tried to do the same, they’d die. The kids have this tremendous skill set relative to their environment. To succeed in their textbooks, you don’t need to do those certain things in their environment.

This reminded me of the Inuit. They have the same brain size as East Asians, due to being one of the peoples from one of the 3 migrations from Siberia into the Americas, but they only have a 91 IQ despite living in one of the coldest climates in the world. Richard Lynn attributes this to them having a small population. Those who have bigger populations have more chance for certain mutations to arise and be selected for. People have marveled at their ability to track where they were and how they got around the tundra. This is visio-spatial ability at work.

It seems like he’s trying to say that there no fit or unfit individuals for any given environment, only what is defined as ‘intelligence’ is different in each society, but as I am showing you, they all go back to the factor, or general intelligence.

4. Practical intellectual skills may be better predictors of health than academic ones.

Wrong. He says that practical intelligence is different in different places. Practical intelligence is just as good as academic intelligence in terms of health in his eyes.

Whatever the case may be, actual g, is one of the best predictors of your longevity in life.

5. Teachers evaluations of students are constrained by their concepts of intelligence.

He cites his study Intelligence and culture: how culture shapes what intelligence means, and the implications for a science of well-being. In which he says:

It is important to realize, again, that there is no one overall US conception of intelligence. Indeed, Okagaki & Sternberg (1993) found that different ethnic groups in San Jose, CA, had rather different conceptions of what it means to be intelligent. For example, Latino parents of schoolchildren tended to emphasize the importance of socialcompetence skills in their conceptions of intelligence, whereas Asian parents tended rather heavily to emphasize the importance of cognitive skills. ‘White’ parents also emphasized cognitive skills more. Teachers, representing the dominant culture, emphasized cognitive skills more than social-competence skills. The rank order of children of various groups’ performance (including subgroups within the Latino and Asian groups) could be perfectly predicted by the extent to which their parents shared the teachers’ conception of intelligence. In other words, teachers tended to reward those children who were socialized into a view of intelligence that happened to correspond to the teachers’ own. However, social aspects of intelligence, broadly defined, may be as important as or even more important than cognitive aspects of intelligence in later life. Some, however, prefer to study intelligence not in its social aspect, but in its cognitive one.

With the ‘Latino’ mention, he’s describing verbal intelligence, just like in the Yup’ik example, he was describing visio-spatial IQ. White parents emphasize cognitive skills more because they are wired to do so, on average.

6. Students learn mathematics if taught in a culturally relevant way.

He says when Alaskan Yup’ik kids were taught geometry using fish racks, they outperformed students who were taught the same concepts conventionally. This, again, back to visio-spatial ability. They are able to imagine their surroundings and remember where they were, giving them an advantage.

7. It is possible to assess in the US in ways that increase prediction and reduce multicultural differences.

He showed 2 different creative writing essays. He showed differing examples of creative writing and verbal ability. He says that in terms of predicting first-year GPA, with adding the of creative and practical, they doubled prediction of performance.

He then shows the amount of each measure that is predicted by racial/ethnic differences. He says Asians do better on the math section, whites do better on the verbal, all of which is known and is caused by differences in visio-spatial and verbal intelligence between the races.

On the analytical tests, blacks, ‘Latino’ and American Indian groups didn’t do as well, but the Native American groups did better on oral storytelling, which makes sense due to their culture and how they evolved.

8. How schooling got to where it is.

He uses some crazy example. Saying that if you only allow students by height into college, that if you do a study 30 years later, with the model of Hernnstein and Murray, you will find that height is correlated with IQ (it is). But that’s a really bad example to use here.

All in all, Sternberg attempts to generalize abilities that fall in the factor and explain them away as something else entirely, not realizing that everything he is explaining is already explained by the general intelligence factor.

A few years ago when I first got in to race differences, someone I was talking to about this did say “well, based on cultural differences, intelligence is different depending on the context and situations you put it in”. So I thought it was funny that someone had a talk on it. Clearly, he’s wrong.

He’s attempting to say that in differing contexts, we’re all smart or dumb in some capacity or another. Which is true to a point, but the factor says otherwise.

You could also explain Sternberg’s theory as not looking at intelligence, but looking at personality differences and how they manifest and help the intelligence in that certain culture/society.

All of the examples he cited fall on the factor, not anything else.



  1. […] (Lynn, 2006, pg 72) Yes that’s how it evolved, to navigate the desert. The same with the Yup’ik children who had an extremely good memory to be able to navigate their surroundings. The same also holds […]


  2. […] (Lynn, 2006, pg 72) Yes that’s how it evolved, to navigate the desert. The same with the Yup’ik children who had an extremely good memory to be able to navigate their surroundings. The same also holds […]


  3. […] touched on this in my refutation of Robert Sternberg. The concept of g does not change over time. The more intelligent you are, the better chance […]


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