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7.4 What are Intelligence & Creativity?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define intelligence
  • Explain the triarchic theory of intelligence
  • Identify the difference between intelligence theories
  • Explain emotional intelligence


A four-and-a-half-year-old boy sits at the kitchen table with his father, who is reading a new story aloud to him. He turns the page to continue reading, but before he can begin, the boy says, “Wait, Daddy!” He points to the words on the new page and reads aloud, “Go, Pig! Go!” The father stops and looks at his son. “Can you read that?” he asks. “Yes, Daddy!” And he points to the words and reads again, “Go, Pig! Go!”

This father was not actively teaching his son to read, even though the child constantly asked questions about letters, words, and symbols that they saw everywhere: in the car, in the store, on the television. The dad wondered about what else his son might understand and decided to try an experiment. Grabbing a sheet of blank paper, he wrote several simple words in a list: mom, dad, dog, bird, bed, truck, car, tree. He put the list down in front of the boy and asked him to read the words. “Mom, dad, dog, bird, bed, truck, car, tree,” he read, slowing down to carefully pronounce bird and truck. Then, “Did I do it, Daddy?” “You sure did! That is very good.” The father gave his little boy a warm hug and continued reading the story about the pig, all the while wondering if his son’s abilities were an indication of exceptional intelligence or simply a normal pattern of linguistic development. Like the father in this example, psychologists have wondered what constitutes intelligence and how it can be measured.


   What exactly is intelligence? The way that researchers have defined the concept of intelligence has been modified many times throughout the ages. Intelligence is used in many context to refer to capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, and problem solving. Intelligence has been most widely studied in humans, but have been documented in non-human animals, plants and machines as in the case of artificial intelligence and neural network modeling. British psychologist Charles Spearman believed intelligence consisted of one general factor, called g, which could be measured and compared among individuals. Spearman focused on the commonalities among various intellectual abilities and demphasized what made each unique. Long before modern psychology developed, however, ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, held a similar view (Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2004).

Others psychologists believe that instead of a single factor, intelligence is a collection of distinct abilities. In the 1940s, Raymond Cattell proposed a theory of intelligence that divided general intelligence into two components: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence (Cattell, 1963). Crystallized intelligence is characterized as acquired knowledge and the ability to retrieve it. When you learn, remember, and recall information, you are using crystallized intelligence. You use crystallized intelligence all the time in your coursework by demonstrating that you have mastered the information covered in the course. Fluid intelligence encompasses the ability to see complex relationships and solve problems. Navigating your way home after being detoured onto an unfamiliar route because of road construction would draw upon your fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence helps you tackle complex, abstract challenges in your daily life, whereas crystallized intelligence helps you overcome concrete, straightforward problems (Cattell, 1963).

Other theorists and psychologists believe that intelligence should be defined in more practical terms. For example, what types of behaviors help you get ahead in life? Which skills promote success? Think about this for a moment. Being able to recite all 44 presidents of the United States in order is an excellent party trick, but will knowing this make you a better person?

Generally speaking, however, we define intelligence as one’s innate ability to solve problems, adapt to the environment, and learn from experiences.

Robert Sternberg developed another theory of intelligence, which he titled the triarchic theory of intelligence suggesting intelligence is made up of of three parts (Sternberg, 1988): practical, creative, and analytical intelligence (figure below).



Three boxes are arranged in a triangle. The top box contains “Analytical intelligence; academic problem solving and computation.” There is a line with arrows on both ends connecting this box to another box containing “Practical intelligence; street smarts and common sense.” Another line with arrows on both ends connects this box to another box containing “Creative intelligence; imaginative and innovative problem solving.” Another line with arrows on both ends connects this box to the first box described, completing the triangle.

Figure 7.04. Sternberg’s theory identifies three types of intelligence: practical, creative, and analytical.


The triarchic theory of intelligence was one of the first psychometric approach (referring to psychological quantifiable measurement) to take a more cognitive approach focusing on how individuals experience and adapt to changes in the environment. Whereas Sternberg describes the basic information processing components of the three sub-sections of intelligence are the same (how the information processing is the same), different contexts and tasks require different kinds of intelligence that represent differences between the analytical, creative, and practical sub-components of intelligence. Within the three sub-components, analytical intelligence refers to the ability to take apart problems and being able to see solutions, while creative intelligence refers to how well a task can be performed and can be broken up into two sub-sub-components: novelty and automation. Within creative novelty intelligence, people that excel in this sub group are proficient at managing new situations and find new ways of solving problems they are unfamiliar with whereas individuals that excel in automated creativity are able to complete automated tasks and behaviors while performing other tasks at the same time. Examples of individuals that have high automated creative intelligence include musicians that can play multiple instruments at the same time in creative and new ways and just about any type of multitasking where multiple patterns of behavior toward a goal can be executed accurately in parallel (Sternberg, 1997). Creative intelligence is also represented by inventing or imagining new solutions to problems or situations. Creativity in this realm can include finding a novel solution to an unexpected problem or producing a beautiful work of art or a well-developed short story. Imagine for a moment that you are camping in the woods with some friends and realize that you’ve forgotten your camp coffee pot. The person in your group who figures out a way to successfully brew coffee for everyone would be credited as having higher creative intelligence.

Practical intelligence concerns mental activity involved in finding a fit to the context you find yourself in. Also though a series of sub-sub-components referred to as adaptation, selection, and shaping, individuals create an ideal fit between themselves and the context of their environment, a phenomenon we commonly refer to as “street smarts”. Being practical means you find solutions that work in your everyday life by applying knowledge based on your experiences. This type of intelligence appears to be separate from traditional understanding of IQ where individuals who score high in practical intelligence may or may not have comparable scores in creative and analytical intelligence (Sternberg, 1988).

The speaker in this video raises questions about how we define genius and intelligence, and in doing so, argues that new definitions are needed.


This story about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings illustrates both high and low practical intelligences. During the incident, one student left her class to go get a soda in an adjacent building. She planned to return to class, but when she returned to her building after getting her soda, she saw that the door she used to leave was now chained shut from the inside. Instead of thinking about why there was a chain around the door handles, she went to her class’s window and crawled back into the room. She thus potentially exposed herself to the gunman. Thankfully, she was not shot. On the other hand, a pair of students was walking on campus when they heard gunshots nearby. One friend said, “Let’s go check it out and see what is going on.” The other student said, “No way, we need to run away from the gunshots.” They did just that. As a result, both avoided harm. The student who crawled through the window demonstrated some creative intelligence but did not use common sense. She would have low practical intelligence. The student who encouraged his friend to run away from the sound of gunshots would have much higher practical intelligence.

Analytical intelligence is closely aligned with academic problem solving and computations. Sternberg says that analytical intelligence is demonstrated by an ability to analyze, evaluate, judge, compare, and contrast. When reading a classic novel for literature class, for example, it is usually necessary to compare the motives of the main characters of the book or analyze the historical context of the story. In a science course such as anatomy, you must study the processes by which the body uses various minerals in different human systems. In developing an understanding of this topic, you are using analytical intelligence. When solving a challenging math problem, you would apply analytical intelligence to analyze different aspects of the problem and then solve it section by section.

Multiple Intelligences Theory was developed by Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist and former student of Erik Erikson. Gardner’s theory, which has been refined for more than 30 years, is a more recent development among theories of intelligence. In Gardner’s theory, each person possesses at least eight intelligences. Among these eight intelligences, a person typically excels in some and falters in others (Gardner, 1983).  The table below describes each type of intelligence.


Multiple Intelligences
Intelligence Type Characteristics Representative Career
Linguistic intelligence Perceives different functions of language, different sounds and meanings of words, may easily learn multiple languages Journalist, novelist, poet, teacher
Logical-mathematical intelligence Capable of seeing numerical patterns, strong ability to use reason and logic Scientist, mathematician
Musical intelligence Understands and appreciates rhythm, pitch, and tone; may play multiple instruments or perform as a vocalist Composer, performer
Bodily kinesthetic intelligence High ability to control the movements of the body and use the body to perform various physical tasks Dancer, athlete, athletic coach, yoga instructor
Spatial intelligence Ability to perceive the relationship between objects and how they move in space Choreographer, sculptor, architect, aviator, sailor
Interpersonal intelligence Ability to understand and be sensitive to the various emotional states of others Counselor, social worker, salesperson
Intrapersonal intelligence Ability to access personal feelings and motivations, and use them to direct behavior and reach personal goals Key component of personal success over time
Naturalist intelligence High capacity to appreciate the natural world and interact with the species within it Biologist, ecologist, environmentalist

   Gardner’s theory is relatively new and needs additional research to better establish empirical support. At the same time, his ideas challenge the traditional idea of intelligence to include a wider variety of abilities, although it has been suggested that Gardner simply relabeled what other theorists called “cognitive styles” as “intelligences” (Morgan, 1996). Furthermore, developing traditional measures of Gardner’s intelligences is extremely difficult (Furnham, 2009; Gardner & Moran, 2006; Klein, 1997).

Gardner’s inter- and intrapersonal intelligences are often combined into a single type: emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence encompasses the ability to understand the emotions of yourself and others, show empathy, understand social relationships and cues, and regulate your own emotions and respond in culturally appropriate ways (Parker, Saklofske, & Stough, 2009). People with high emotional intelligence typically have well-developed social skills. Some researchers, including Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, argue that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than traditional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). However, emotional intelligence has been widely debated, with researchers pointing out inconsistencies in how it is defined and described, as well as questioning results of studies on a subject that is difficulty to measure and study emperically (Locke, 2005; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004)

Intelligence can also have different meanings and values in different cultures. If you live on a small island, where most people get their food by fishing from boats, it would be important to know how to fish and how to repair a boat. If you were an exceptional angler, your peers would probably consider you intelligent. If you were also skilled at repairing boats, your intelligence might be known across the whole island. Think about your own family’s culture. What values are important for Latino families? Italian families? In Irish families, hospitality and telling an entertaining story are marks of the culture. If you are a skilled storyteller, other members of Irish culture are likely to consider you intelligent.

Some cultures place a high value on working together as a collective. In these cultures, the importance of the group supersedes the importance of individual achievement. When you visit such a culture, how well you relate to the values of that culture exemplifies your cultural intelligence, sometimes referred to as cultural competence.


Although when asked to describe creative processes now, most people would respond by describing various forms of artistic expression such as music or painting, many scholars from ancient cultures such as Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Ancient India lacked the concept of creativity viewing art as a form of discovery as opposed to a method of expression (Albert & Runco, 1999). Arguments regarding what creativity is and how to properly describe its existence have spanned throughout the development of psychological science but insights from 19th century scientists such as Hermann von Helmholtz and Henri Poincare later led to pioneering work by Graham Wallas and Max Wertheimer. Specifically, Wallas’s 1926 publication Art of Thought presented one of the first models of processes related to creativity. Within the Wallas Stage Model of creativity, creative insights and illuminations may be explained by 5 different stages.

5 Stages of the Wallas Stage Model

  • 1. Preparation – mental reparatory work that analyzes the issues being addressed and organizes thoughts to favor the most probably solutions.
  • 2. Incubation – the problem is internalized and reanalyzed based on probable solutions unconsciously where no action is being made.
  • 3. Intimation – the feeling that a solution is on its way.
  • 4. Illumination (also referred to as Insight) – the creative solution reveals itself from the subconscious and brought to conscious evaluation.
  • 5. Verification – the solution is further evaluated, tested, verified to be correct in resolving the problem and then applied to other similar problems.


Wallas was a proponent of the evolutionary school of thought in terms of cognitive behavior and considered creativity to be a legacy of the human evolution.


Modern concepts of creativity define it as the ability to generate, create, or discover new ideas, solutions, and possibilities. Very creative people often have intense knowledge about something, work on it for years, look at novel solutions, seek out the advice and help of other experts, and take risks. Although creativity is often associated with the arts, it is actually a vital form of intelligence that drives people in many disciplines to discover something new. Creativity can be found in every area of life, from the way you decorate your residence to a new way of understanding how a cell works.

Creativity is often assessed as a function of one’s ability to engage in divergent thinking. Divergent thinking can be described as thinking “outside the box;” it allows an individual to arrive at unique, multiple solutions to a given problem. In contrast, convergent thinking describes the ability to provide a correct or well-established answer or solution to a problem (Cropley, 2006; Gilford, 1967)

Dr. Tom Steitz, the Sterling Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Yale University, has spent his career looking at the structure and specific aspects of RNA molecules and how their interactions could help produce antibiotics and ward off diseases. As a result of his lifetime of work, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009. He wrote, “Looking back over the development and progress of my career in science, I am reminded how vitally important good mentorship is in the early stages of one’s career development and constant face-to-face conversations, debate and discussions with colleagues at all stages of research. Outstanding discoveries, insights and developments do not happen in a vacuum” (Steitz, 2010, para. 39). Based on Steitz’s comment, it becomes clear that someone’s creativity, although an individual strength, benefits from interactions with others. Think of a time when your creativity was sparked by a conversation with a friend or classmate. How did that person influence you and what problem did you solve using creativity?

Further neuroscience research has implemented advanced function brain imaging techniques to describe how the brain operates while creative processes are performed. Dr. Alice Flaherty presented a broad spectrum of evidence using a variety of techniques to suggest creativity is mediated by interactions between the frontal lobes, temporal lobes and dopamine pathways in the limbic system (Flaherty, 2005). Behavioral issues related to disfunction of the frontal lobe such as depression and anxiety have been related to decreased creativity, whereas abnormalities of the temporal lobe have been related to increases in creativity (Miller et al., 1998). Also high dopamine levels in the limbic system and frontal lobes has been related to increased arousal and goal directed behaviors reducing inhibition, and increasing the drive to create new and innovative ideas (Flaherty, 2005).


Intelligence is a complex characteristic of cognition. Many theories have been developed to explain what intelligence is and how it works. Sternberg generated his triarchic theory of intelligence, whereas Gardner posits that intelligence is comprised of many factors. Still others focus on the importance of emotional intelligence. Finally, creativity seems to be a facet of intelligence, but it is extremely difficult to measure objectively.



Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology



Review Questions:

1. Fluid intelligence is characterized by ________.

a. being able to recall information

b. being able to create new products

c. being able to understand and communicate with different cultures

d. being able to see complex relationships and solve problems


2. Which of the following is not one of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences?

a. creative

b. spatial

c. linguistic

d. musical


3. Which theorist put forth the triarchic theory of intelligence?

a. Goleman

b. Gardner

c. Sternberg

d. Steitz


4. When you are examining data to look for trends, which type of intelligence are you using most?

a. practical

b. analytical

c. emotional

d. creative


Critical Thinking Question:

1. Describe a situation in which you would need to use practical intelligence.

2. Describe a situation in which cultural intelligence would help you communicate better.


Personal Application Question:

1. What influence do you think emotional intelligence plays in your personal life?



analytical intelligence

convergent thinking

creative intelligence


crystallized intelligence

cultural intelligence

divergent thinking

emotional intelligence

fluid intelligence

Multiple Intelligences Theory

practical intelligence

triarchic theory of intelligence

Answers to Exercises

Review Questions:

1. D

2. A

3. C

4. B


Critical Thinking Question:

1. You are out with friends and it is getting late. You need to make it home before your curfew, but you don’t have a ride home. You need to get in touch with your parents, but your cell phone is dead. So, you enter a nearby convenience store and explain your situation to the clerk. He allows you to use the store’s phone to call your parents, and they come and pick you and your friends up, and take all of you home.

2. You are visiting Madrid, Spain, on a language immersion trip. Your Spanish is okay, but you still not sure about some of the facial expressions and body language of the native speakers. When faced with a sticky social situation, you do not engage immediately as you might back home. Instead, you hold back and observe what others are doing before reacting.



analytical intelligence: aligned with academic problem solving and computations

convergent thinking: providing correct or established answers to problems

creative intelligence: ability to produce new products, ideas, or inventing a new, novel solution to a problem

creativity: ability to generate, create, or discover new ideas, solutions, and possibilities

crystallized intelligence: characterized by acquired knowledge and the ability to retrieve it

cultural intelligence: ability with which people can understand and relate to those in another culture

divergent thinking: ability to think “outside the box” to arrive at novel solutions to a problem

emotional intelligence: ability to understand emotions and motivations in yourself and others

fluid intelligence: ability to see complex relationships and solve problems

Multiple Intelligences Theory: Gardner’s theory that each person possesses at least eight types of intelligence

practical intelligence: aka “street smarts”

triarchic theory of intelligence: Sternberg’s theory of intelligence; three facets of intelligence: practical, creative, and analytical


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