So you think you're smart, stupid?

Cleverness is not enough, says Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale University, where students and staff might reasonably congratulate themselves on being cleverer than most.

It seems an odd statement from someone who has spent most of his career testing, developing training for and theorising about intelligence. But these are odd, post-September 11 times, and questions Sternberg has been asking for several years about why smart people could be so stupid now have additional urgency, as he asks why they can also be so destructive.

If you didn’t know that Sternberg was president-elect of the 100 000-strong American Psychological Association, author of 18 books and one of the United States’s most prestigious and prolific commentators not only on the way people think but also of the way they love and hate, you might assume that he was a New Jersey cab driver. Bobbing and weaving between theory, anecdote and self-deprecating wisecrack as he lectured to a packed auditorium at the 10th International Conference on Thinking in Harrogate, the thrust of his latest set of ideas seems uncannily similar to the view that many cabbies also probably hold of the campus.

“Why is it that you have lots of people who are successfully intelligent, but they are unwise?” he asks. “As I have studied IQ and analytical intelligence, I’ve seen people who have high IQs, they have test scores and degrees, but put them in a job or a relationship and they make a mess of it.

“What’s up with people who have very high intelligence in the traditional sense, but seem to be out to lunch in another sense? What was Bill Clinton thinking when he kept repeating the same mistakes in his personal life?

How did the intelligent people in Enron think they would get away with a shell game?”

One answer to these questions, he argues, is that in the pursuit of high academic goals, common sense and self-knowledge are lost. “You get people who are so smart, and who are so highly rewarded by school and university and society for being smart, that they see the world as their tool and they only see consequences for themselves. Then they start to think they know everything; academics are particularly prone to this.”

To prevent clever people falling into the fallacies of their own egocentrism, omniscience, omnipotence and invulnerability—all of which he lists as stages of stupidity—they must be taught “wisdom”. And the place that must teach it to them is the place where cleverness is currently most honed and valued: the university.

Actually, cleverness, as narrowly measured in IQ, has never been enough to satisfy Sternberg. When he was 12 he found a book of IQ tests in the local library and proceeded to test all his friends. His school banned him from using it, so he invented a test of his own, the Sternberg Test of Mental Abilities.

He went to Yale to study psychology, already knowing that his field of interest would be intelligence. (He has been there ever since, and now he is 52.) But while the dominant psychological theory of the time was the overwhelming importance of a single, fixed, largely inherited and highly measurable intelligence known as “g” or general intelligence—the stuff IQ tests claim to measure—Sternberg began to argue from early on that measuring “g” was not enough. His argument then followed a similar trajectory to his present one.

He observed among his students that those who had highly analytical intelligence of the kind awarded top scores in intelligence tests often fell down when faced with everyday problems. What they lacked, he suggested, was a different kind of intelligence, which he called “practical intelligence”.

He did experiments with Michigan University MBA students, showing that those who combined high analytical intelligence with high scores on tricky practical problems were in fact most likely to succeed.

He went one step further, designing creativity tests—writing doorknob advertisements; finding a strategy to pick out an alien disguised within a group of humans—to pick out those students who combined high analytical and practical intelligence with high creative intelligence, too.

Tests for this three-pronged view of intelligence (all aspects of which are trainable as well as testable, not fixed like “g”) are growing in popularity in the US and around the world, backed by research from the Centre for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (Pace), which he set up and still directs at Yale.

At the same time, and prompted, he says, by the break-up of his marriage, he took a detour into emotional psychology. He wrote books on love—theorising that people build their own love lives on different “stories” about love that they learn as children—and on hate, a barely noticed phenomenon in psychology that he argues is founded on a denial of intimacy with the hated object, a passion and a commitment to the hate object’s destruction.

Now, while he sees his route to thinking about wisdom as the obvious outcome of thinking about intelligence, he acknowledges that some people believe he has gone completely off the map. “It’s much harder to get funding for research on wisdom than for work on intelligence, because that’s easy to measure. Wisdom is hard to measure, it’s hard to teach, for some people it’s too pie in the sky.”

Nevertheless, he is beginning to establish parameters for defining wisdom, he says. It must be based on common values that run through most religions and cultures: reciprocity, courage, sincerity, honesty, integrity, compassion. It involves knowing what you know and what you don’t know, and what it’s possible to know at any given time. It is sustained by balance: balance between one’s own and others’ interests; by short and long-term perspectives.

He argues that wisdom can and should be taught, and that in universities in particular, teaching it would make a substantial difference.

“Most of what you learn in university today isn’t teaching the facts; it’s teaching thinking. The argument is what do we mean by teaching thinking. I’m saying it’s not just teaching analytical or creative thinking; it’s teaching thinking wisely.

“For example, at the moment we teach our students to look out for themselves, to make a lot of money. We teach them false dichotomies: that two points of view totally contradict each other, that only their professor’s view is right. You can go through a behaviourist or a cognitive graduate programme in psychology and you only learn that way and you never get to learn to talk to other people.

“If universities taught wisdom, they would make people consider the short term and the long term. Departments wouldn’t always insist things were done their way. People would be thinking more about the effects of what they do on their personal relationships. There would be more emphasis on the values underpinning everything we do. As professors we would have to not only develop wise thinking but model it, value it and reward it.”

Sternberg’s critics might point out that values are often relative, or that beyond the intellectual stratosphere—in the taxi cab, for example—these ideas might not seem terribly new. In fact, he says, the response of the American education system to them is neither of these.

“The main argument I get against teaching wisdom in the US is that it isn’t going to help kids get better scores in tests. The way you get ahead in the US is by doing well in a selection of tests. So you end up with an establishment in power that’s selected for IQ and it’s self-perpetuating.”

Yet now as never before, he argues, wisdom in word and in deed is what the campus and its ruling-class alumni most need. “Wisdom is particularly important now because humans have made great strides in technology through being clever, without corresponding advances in wisdom. We have people who are very unwise in possession of very powerful weapons, and we really may not have very much time to do something about that.”

Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence; Thinking Styles; Cupid’s Arrow, all by Robert Sternberg, published by Cambridge University Press

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