Robert J. Sternberg is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, Yale University. This article appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of The American Scholar, Vol. 65, No. 2. Copyright © 1996 by the author.

Alice was the admissions officer’s dream. She had 800s on her boards, close to a 4.0 average, and glowing letters of recommendation from her teachers. She was the proverbial good student with paper credentials that just couldn’t be beaten. She was accepted by every graduate program to which she applied. We were thrilled when she decided to matriculate in Yale’s doctoral program in psychology.

The tests and other predictors of success were correct as far as they went: Alice excelled in her first year of course work, competing with just one other student for the highest academic average in an already highly selective program. Then something went wrong something big. By the time Alice was done with the program, she was roughly in the bottom 20 percent of her cohort. And it wasn’t that she didn’t try. On the contrary, she was highly motivated to succeed.

What went wrong with Alice is what has gone wrong with thousands and thousands of students: they are brilliant when it comes to remembering and even analyzing ideas, but they are dim when it comes to generating their own ideas. They may have 700s or even 800s on their boards, and often lQs of 140 and above, but they seem to lack even an ounce of creativity. In other terms, they are analytically, but not creatively, intelligent.

Contrast the fate of Alice to that of Barbara. Barbara applied to Yale’s graduate program in psychology with good but not outstanding grades. More notable were her superb letters of recommendation from eminent people and her record of published work. The impressive creativity of this work was apparent to almost anyone who took the trouble to read it. But Barbara’s test scores, although not awful, were modest. Barbara, unlike Alice, was rejected. Moreover, the Barbaras of the world tend to be rejected, not just by Yale, but by other highly competitive programs that can give a future scholar a head start in academic life, a future lawyer a stepping-stone to the world of law, or a future doctor an edge up on the best internships.

Barbara was one of the lucky ones. I hired her as a research associate. She demonstrated exceptional creative abilities, and two years later, when she reapplied to our graduate program, she was admitted as the top pick. She even received a special fellowship reserved for top applicants. But for every Barbara who gets a chance, there are unknown thousands like her who are consigned to the academic waste basket – they never get the chance that Barbara got. We never find out what happened to them, because we never give them the chance to show us what they might have done.

Paul might have seemed like the ideal admissions’ candidate. He combined Alice’s analytical ability with Barbara’s creative ability. His professors were delighted with him and expected him to be a smash hit on the academic job market. Actually, the professors weren’t the only ones impressed with Paul; Paul was too, and it showed.

When Paul went on the academic job market, he was asked to interview at every institution to which he applied-an enviable record. His hit rate for getting jobs wasn’t quite so enviable, however: he was offered only one position, at the weakest department to which he applied. Clearly, he was far from a desirable commodity, his analytical and creative abilities notwithstanding.

Ironically, Sam, who had received no interview offers at all in the first round, was later offered many of the interview opportunities Paul had initially flubbed. Sam was offered several positions and within a few years had tenure, whereas Paul was out of a job. Sam’s work was nothing special, but he knew what his department valued, and he delivered. What went wrong with Paul was straightforward: Paul was so lacking in common sense that he couldn’t hide his arrogance even on the one day he needed to hide it-the day on which he had a job interview. And once hired, his arrogance led him quickly to become a pariah among his colleagues. Paul was analytically and creatively intelligent but lacking in practical intelligence. Sam, more modest in analytical and creative intelligence, was able to translate his practical intelligence into good, although perhaps not distinguished, career success.

The stories of Alice and Barbara and of Paul and Sam are all true, with only the names changed. They are also, in their themes, common stories in academe. But stories like these are what have led many psychologists, myself among them, to conclude that conventional notions of intelligence may be correct as far as they go but that they do not go far enough. These psychologists have suggested that conventional notions of intelligence (a) define intelligence too restrictively and (b) often provide reasonable answers, but to narrow questions. The problem is that the answers may be fine, but the questions are not.

Today, the field of intelligence is going through a heated, no holds-barred battle between adherents to a conventional paradigm that has its roots at the turn of the century and adherents to new paradigms that are attempting to turn the old paradigm on its head. The adherents to the old paradigm have reacted in various ways to the revolutionaries, all of these ways predicted in spirit by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The traditionalists’ reactions are similar to those of any entrenched power structure: they ignore the revolutionaries, hoping they will go away or not be noticed; or they give them a glancing notice but try not to take them seriously; or they fight them head-on.

Some traditionalists choose to ignore the revolutionaries altogether. Other traditionalists, such as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in The Bell Curve, briefly acknowledge the existence of the revolutionaries and then move on. But the revolutionaries are becoming harder to ignore. For example, every major college-level textbook in introductory psychology now prominently features two of the revolutionary theories, my own theory and that of Howard Gardner, a kindred spirit. Moreover, research as well as theory in the field of intelligence more and more is reflecting the revolutionary paradigms.

Still other traditionalists, among them Malcolm Ree, Jack Hunter, and Frank Schmidt, have joined the battle and chosen to take on the revolutionaries, responding to them directly in print. But what is the battle about, anyway? On what grounds is it being fought?

The grounds of the intellectual battle ought to be over “What should we ask about intelligence?” Consider a concrete example. The traditionalists take a battery of conventional tasks used to measure intelligence, such as the tasks on an IQ test, and ask: “What is the latent structure of intelligence underlying observable scores on conventional tasks used to measure intelligence?”

This is the question that Charles Spearman sought to answer in his 1904 analysis of intelligence-test performance, and it is the question that traditionalists have sought to answer ever since. Practically speaking, traditionalists are intellectual descendants of Edwin Boring, who in 1923 espoused the operationist dictum that intelligence is what intelligence tests test.

Although these traditionalists agree that intelligence tests measure intelligence adequately, they do not agree as to the latent structure underlying performance on the tests. Some theorists, like Spearman in the past as well as Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in the present, have believed in a single, general factor of intelligence (called g), represented by a global IQ (intelligence-quotient) score; other theorists, like Cyril Burt and Philip E. Vernon in the past and John B. Carroll and Jan-Eric Gustafsson in the present, have believed in a hierarchy of abilities, with general ability at the top of the hierarchy, and successively more narrow levels of abilities below g. And other points of view have been presented as well.

The revolutionaries do not accept the answers of any of the traditionalists, because they do not accept their question. They believe that the kinds of tasks used in conventional tests of intelligence are largely arbitrary and lacking in any theoretical basis. The revolutionaries do not believe that conventional tests adequately sample the universe of tasks needed to assess intelligence. These researchers believe that the general factor is in part an artifact of the method used to analyze test scores-factor analysis. This method is mathematically designed to maximize the amount of variation that occurs in the first factor, thus yielding a general factor as a result of mathematical rather than psychological necessity. But more important, they believe that g is an artifact of the narrow range of kinds of tests conventionally used to measure intelligence. In their view, the general factor would disappear if the tests were more widely conceived and based on a broad, well-specified theory of intelligence.