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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2013
Testing Out
With Dr. Robert Sternberg

Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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 interested in
 the study of psychology?

As a 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?
When I 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 testing?

In our society, we place great emphasis on knowledge and analytical skills, but we
 tend 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?

It’s not 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?

Having 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 "popular” press.

How do you go about testing creativity
or practical intelligence?

There are 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 create
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 passion
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?
I think the biggest difference is that, in school, you usually get
some protection. Yes,
 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 about
which mistakes to avoid during the publication process?

Never 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 are going
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
interested in psychology?

I think 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 
from you in the future?
Well, no 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
tion where I could apply mine and others’ ideas from psychology. That’s what led me 
to 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.

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice-president of Oklahoma State University, as well as George Kaiser Family Foundation Professor of Ethical Leadership and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education. Before coming to Oklahoma State, Sternberg was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences as well as a professor of psychology and education at Tufts University. He was previously IBM Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Psychology, Professor of Management in the School of Management, and director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise at Yale. Sternberg graduated with a BA summa cum laude from Yale and received his PhD from Stanford. He also holds 13 honorary doctorates from 11 different countries. Sternberg and his wife, Karin, whose PhD in psychology is from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, are the parents of triplets, and Sternberg also has two grown children from his first marriage and one grandchild.

Copyright 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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