How well did you perform
in your preparation tests for college? Dr. Robert Sternberg thinks it may not
entirely matter. Over the years, he has focused on intelligence, creativity,
wisdom, thinking styles, and leadership, as well as love, close relationships,
and hate. He has received over $20 million in government and other grants and
contracts for his research,
is listed in the APA Monitor on Psychology as
one of the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century, and is also one of the
most highly cited authors in psychology and psychiatry. Today, Dr. Sternberg
explains that analytical tests do not cover as much as they should.
How did you become
the study of psychology?
child in early elementary school, I did poorly on annual intelligence tests. I
would like to think this was due to test anxiety, but of course there are other
explanations. That’s how I became interested in intelligence and intelligence
testing, which broadened into an interest in psychology. I also believed from
an early age that abilities are modifiable. I even created a workbook every
year I was in elementary school for kids to improve their intellectual skills.
Thus, I was interested in the assessment and modifiability of intelligence from
the start as well. In seventh grade, I did a project on intelligence testing in
which I designed my own intelligence test and gave intelligence tests to
friends. I got into serious trouble because of that.
Who is your mentor?
was an undergraduate at Yale, I learned from Endel Tulving that just because a
lot of people believe something does not mean it’s true. In graduate school at
Stanford, Gordon Bower taught me the importance
of being at the forefront of a
field and not
to be just a follower. He told me to try to
take a leading
position in whatever you
do. And while I was an assistant professor, Wendell
Garner, a professor at Yale at the time, showed me that people are judged by
the positive contributions they make, not by their nitpicking others.
What is the Triarchic
Theory, and how
does it encompass more perspectives than ordinary analytical
society, we place great emphasis on knowledge and analytical skills, but we
to ignore creative, practical, ethical, and wisdom-based skills. The Triarchic
Theory of Successful Intelligence holds that knowledge and analytical skills
applied to that knowledge comprise an important part of intelligence, but that
it isn’t the whole deal. Many previous intelligence researchers didn’t realize that
people also need creative skills to come up with ideas and to cope with
situations in their lives, such as moving to college or graduate school,
getting married, or switching jobs. Additionally, people have original ideas
all the time, but not all ideas are good, so they need analytical skills, certainly,
to ascertain the quality of their ideas. These are the skills measured by
conventional standardized tests. But they also need practical or common sense
skills in order to implement their ideas and to persuade others of their value.
There are people who have high IQ’s but lack common sense—all of us know some
of them—and also people with common sense who do not necessarily have the
highest IQs. Also, wisdom and ethical based skills are important so that people
can use their knowledge and abilities to achieve a common good over the long
and short terms, through the infusion of positive ethical values.
Why do you believe the
older tests are
still used if they are so inaccurate?
that the traditional tests, such as the ACT and SAT, are bad. It’s that they
are woefully incomplete, because if you look at failed leaders in our society,
some of them fail due to a lack of analytical ability, but many more are likely
to fail because they are unwise, uncreative, or simply lack common sense.
Essentially we have created a dysfunctional system in our country where people
advance educationally as well as economically based on their scores on very
narrow tests that measure an incomplete set of the skills needed, not only for
work, but also to be an effective, active citizen of the world. We’re in this
situation in part because a few test companies have a monopoly on testing, and they have been
remarkably lacking in innovation. However that lack
of innovation can’t be
blamed just on them because they respond to customers; so long as customers
keep buying their products, they’ll keep making them. In that way, they’re no
different from soda or soap companies—they just make what people will buy. If
people buy their products, they have no incentive to change. And little has
changed in these tests during the past century, beyond cosmetic face-lifts.
What has been the most
beneficial project that you have taken part in?
five kids: Seth and Sara are from my first marriage; and Samuel, Brittany, and
Melody—two-year-old triplets—one from my second marriage.
In terms of a professional project, the Rainbow Project, which I did in
my last years at Yale (up to 2005), was designed
to create a college admissions
test that would be based on my theory of successful intelligence. It measured
creative and practical thinking skills as well as the more conventional
analytical skills already measured by tests like the ACT and SAT. The project
was very successful in showing that, by measuring creative and practical
skills, we substantially could increase prediction of first year academic
success in college. We basically doubled prediction rate for first-year GPA
over the SAT, and we also substantially decreased ethnic group differences in
test scores. I think that the project was very well received. It was published
as the lead article in Intelligence and was also carried in the
How do you go about
or practical intelligence?
several ways. For example, to test creativity we might ask for a written story
with an unusual title such as "Confessions of a Middle School Bully” or "The
End of MTV.” Or we might ask them to draw an advertisement for a new product or
a YouTube video. Or we might provide a scenario such as to suppose Rosa
Parks had given up her seat on the bus; then we ask for a counter-factual
future history about what the world would be like today if such an event had
happened. At Oklahoma State, we present five very different words and ask for a
creative short story that uses all five. By the way, these are options:
Participants can choose how they want to express their creativity.
To test practical skills, we might show
a movie where a narrator college
student goes to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, but can tell
from the professor’s expression that the professor doesn’t know who he is. Then
we ask what that protagonist in the movie should do. Another video might be
about going to a party and discovering that the protagonist doesn’t know anyone
there—what should he do? In another movie, there is a discussion among
roommates about distributing payments for a flat where the bedrooms are
different sizes. The protagonist has to decide how to handle such a situation.
In another type of item, we might ask the individual how he or she has
persuaded a friend of some idea that the friend did not initially accept.
To measure wisdom and ethics, we might ask to hear about a high school
and how this passion might be directed someday toward a common good.
Another thing we’ve done is to give a problem where a professor tells the
protagonist that all students participating in a group project will get the
same grade; this means that everyone will fail on the project if anyone in the
group plagiarized. After the assignment is turned in, the protagonist finds out
that a member of the team did in fact plagiarize. The protagonist has to say
how he or she would handle the situation.
Your upcoming RMPA lecture
will discuss the things you have learned after 40 years in psychology. With
those experiences in mind, what would you say is the biggest difference between
school work and work in the real world?
the biggest difference is that, in school, you usually get
occasionally a really cranky professor goes after you or you make an
enemy, but for the most part, you don’t yet realize how rocky the boat will be
in terms of getting a job. Over time, you will see other people get jobs who
you don’t think are as good as you. You will see people win awards who you
don’t think deserve them. You will have articles that you thought were pretty
good suddenly rejected for no apparent cause. Once you get out of school, the
stakes get higher. The clocks start ticking and you encounter a lot of
obstacles. The key to success is perseverance in the face of obstacles,
sometimes daunting ones.
What tips can you give us
which mistakes to avoid during the publication process?
forget the importance of absolute integrity in your work. This is not just
about faking or shading data, but also in the way you treat your colleagues and
students, and even in the way you go about writing grant proposals.
Also, be resilient, because you don’t yet realize how many failures you
to have, how many articles and grants you will have rejected, or how
many people are going to criticize you, sometimes mercilessly and sometimes
without reason. In my experience, the people who succeed are the ones who are
resilient and keep going even when life seems really bleak. Don’t take it
personally and believe in yourself. You may start to think that you are the
only one being rejected, but when I was dean of arts and sciences at Tufts
University, our most productive researcher said that his rejection rate was
90%, so he just kept writing proposals. You need to be reflective to avoid dead
ends, but always believe that, if you persist, you eventually will succeed.
What will prepare students
the most important thing is to find a great advisor who will support you,
mentor you, look after you as an individual, help you get a job, and stay with
you throughout your career. My advisors, Endel Tulving, Gordon Bower, and
Wendell Garner, became lifelong colleagues and friends, and I think that a lot
of my success has really been attributable to their support.
Finding a place that is a good fit is important too, because a person
can be really successful in one environment and not so much in another depending
on how much the university emphasizes research versus teaching and depending on
how supportive it is of its people.
What can we expect to see
you in the future?
more kids. With five, we are probably done. But in terms of me, I still publish
40 or 50 articles a year as an administrator, although the content is very
different. I was frustrated in my earlier years because nothing I wrote about
seemed to change. After Project Rainbow, our commercial funding organization
stopped backing us when we got what we and others thought were great results.
In this way, that project—as well
as being APA president—transformed my career,
because I discovered that I really wanted to be, and liked being, in a posi
where I could apply mine and others’ ideas from psychology. That’s what led me
become a dean at Tufts and to implement Kaleidoscope, which used ideas from
Rainbow in the actual Tufts undergraduate admissions process. I then moved to
become provost of Oklahoma State, which now uses some of the same ideas, in
adapted form, in its Panorama admissions project. After all,
I never went into
academia just to get 1,400 or so publications. I wanted to make a positive,
meaningful, and enduring difference to the world. I will begin my presidency of
the University of Wyoming starting this summer, where I hope to start a similar
project as well.