The announcement of the content of my upcoming book, In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths About Human Intelligence has been very well received. I’ve aimed the book towards the interested layman, and I have had several emails and social media messages from non-psychologists stating that they were looking forward to the book. [Update: The book has been released.]
There are two chapters of the book that I anticipate will be particularly interesting to many non-psychologists. The first is Chapter 5, which shows the empirical and theoretical problems inherent in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. In short, Gardner believes that general intelligence does not exist and instead proposes several (7-9, in various iterations of the theory) independent abilities.
If you want a taste for what the book will discuss, you can read the Twitter Moment I compiled as I read Gardner’s Frames of Mind, the book in which he proposed the theory of multiple intelligences:
Chapter 6 is similar because it also focuses on a non-mainstream theory of intelligence that is poorly supported by data: Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence. Sternberg favors a multiplicity of intelligences (three, instead of Gardner’s 7-9) and denies the possibility of a general intelligence that people use in all contexts to solve all problems.
Non-experts are especially interested in Sternberg’s idea of practical intelligence, which he sees as an intelligence that helps people learn important tacit information that is not explicitly taught. Some people equate this with “street smarts,” a folk idea that many find appealing.
Commonalities Between the Two Theories
The two theories have several points in common. Both Gardner and Sternberg do not believe in the existence of general intelligence. Both believe that combinations of broad abilities are a more plausible explanation for high performance. And both have a shaky empirical foundation. In my book, I give an accessible explanation for why both of these theories wrong.
But there is one other interesting similarity between the two theories: They were both born at Ivy League universities. Gardner was (and is) a professor in education at Harvard University. At the time Sternberg created the triarchic theory of intelligence, he was a psychology professor at Yale University.
Harvard and Yale. Two of the most prestigious universities in the Ivy League, and these schools convey their prestige automatically on the research that comes out of these schools. This raises an obvious question: Would Gardner’s and Sternberg’s theories have received as much attention and acclaim if they had originated outside of the Ivy League? 🤔
We’ll never know for sure. But the question reminds me of a similarly unsupported theory: the theory of positive disintegration. Created by Kazimierz Dabrowski, an obscure 20th century Polish psychologist, this theory was brought to English speaking countries through the work of Michael Piechowski. This is a theory of personality and moral development that has a small cadre of diehard devotees in gifted education because it posits that high-ability people have special, heightened psychological experiences. The idea is intuitively appealing, though the evidence supporting the theory is flimsy.
Piechowski was never affiliated with an Ivy League University. From the mid-1980s until his retirement, Piechowski worked at Northland College, which according to the Old Farmer’s Wikipedia is a private liberal arts college with 600 full-time students and 60 faculty members. While it seems like a nice place, Northland lacks the prestige and notoriety that Ivy League schools enjoy. It is tempting to think that the theory of positive disintegration failed to gain traction among the public because it didn’t originate from a famous university.
All three theories have their adherents, but positive integration enjoys a much smaller following than the theories of multiple intelligences or triarchic intelligence. Perhaps the P.R. machines of the Ivy League universities, their caché, and the prominent platform their faculty enjoy have helped Gardner’s and Sternberg’s theories flourish when Piechowski’s ideas remain in obscurity.
Again, we will never know for sure. But the idea that the Ivy League helps incorrect ideas flourish is an intriguing possibility. In a perfect world, ideas would be based solely on how well they withstand attempts to falsify them. If that were the case, then all three theories would have been discarded long ago.