Intelligence and Creativity

Rubik's cube

Intelligence is a complex characteristic of cognition. Many theories have been developed to explain what intelligence is and how it works. There’s Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence that focuses on analytical, creative, and practical intelligence, but there is also Gardner’s theory which holds that intelligence is comprised of many factors. Still, other theories focus on the importance of emotional intelligence. Which of the theories is most correct? And how can intelligence even be measured?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.

Video 1. Controversy of Intelligence defines intelligence, identifies types of intelligence, explains intelligence testing, and the history of controversy around intelligence.

Theroies of Intelligence

What exactly is intelligence? The way that researchers have defined the concept of intelligence has been modified many times since the birth of psychology.

Video 2. Theories of Intelligence reviews some of the major theoretical approaches of intelligence.

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 de-emphasized what made each unique. Long before modern psychology developed, however, ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, held a similar view (Cianciolo & Sternberg, 2004).

Other 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?

Robert Sternberg developed another theory of intelligence, which he titled the triarchic theory of intelligence because it sees intelligence as comprised of three parts (Sternberg, 1988): practical, creative, and analytical intelligence (Figure 1).

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

Practical intelligence, as proposed by Sternberg, is sometimes compared to “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 the traditional understanding of IQ; individuals who score high in practical intelligence may or may not have comparable scores in creative and analytical intelligence (Sternberg, 1988).

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 a 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.

Watch It

Test your analytical intelligence with the prisoner hat riddle:

Creative intelligence is marked by inventing or imagining a solution to a problem or situation. 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.

Try It

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 following table 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 difficult to measure and study empirically (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.

WatCh It

Watch this video to review each of Gardner’s types of intelligences.

Try It


What do the following have in common: the drug penicillin, the Eiffel Tower, the film Lord of the Rings, the General Theory of Relativity, the hymn Amazing Grace, the iPhone, the novel Don Quixote, the painting The Mona Lisa, a recipe for chocolate fudge, the soft drink Coca-Cola, the video game Wii Sports, the West Coast offense in football, and the zipper? You guessed right! All of the named items were products of the creative mind. Not one of them existed until somebody came up with the idea. Creativity is not something that you just pick like apples from a tree. Because creative ideas are so special, creators who come up with the best ideas are often highly rewarded with fame, fortune, or both. Nobel Prizes, Oscars, Pulitzers, and other honors bring fame, and big sales and box office bring fortune. Yet what is creativity in the first place?

Creativity: What Is It?

Creativity happens when someone comes up with a creative idea. An example would be a creative solution to a difficult problem. But what makes an idea or solution creative? Creativity is 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.

Although psychologists have offered several definitions of creativity (Plucker, Beghetto, & Dow, 2004; Runco & Jaeger, 2012), probably the best definition is the one recently adapted from the three criteria that the U.S. Patent Office uses to decide whether an invention can receive patent protection (Simonton, 2012).

The first criterion is originality. The idea must have a low probability. Indeed, it often should be unique. Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity certainly satisfied this criterion. No other scientist came up with the idea.

The second criterion is usefulness. The idea should be valuable or work. For example, a solution must, in fact, solve the problem. An original recipe that produces a dish that tastes too terrible to eat cannot be creative. In the case of Einstein’s theory, his relativity principle provided explanations for what otherwise would be inexplicable empirical results.

The third and last criterion is surprised. The idea should be surprising, or at least nonobvious (to use the term used by the Patent Office). For instance, a solution that is a straightforward derivation from acquired expertise cannot be considered surprising even if it were original. Einstein’s relativity theory was not a step-by-step deduction from classical physics but rather the theory was built upon a new foundation that challenged the very basis of traditional physics. When applying these three criteria, it is critical to recognize that originality, usefulness, and surprise are all quantitative rather than qualitative attributes of an idea. Specifically, we really have to speak of the degree to which an idea satisfies each of the three criteria. In addition, the three attributes should have a zero point, that is, it should be possible to speak of an idea lacking any originality, usefulness, or surprise whatsoever. Finally, we have to assume that if an idea scores zero on any one criterion then it must have zero creativity as well. For example, someone who reinvents the wheel is definitely producing a useful idea, but the idea has zero originality and hence no creativity whatsoever. Similarly, someone who invented a parachute made entirely out of steel-reinforced concrete would get lots of credit for originality—and surprise!—but none for usefulness.

Cognitive Processes: How Do Creators Think?

Man working on a sculpture of a face.

Figure 1. If you were tasked with thinking up as many uses for a brick as you could, how well would you do? Would you have thought to chisel the brick into a sculpture? What about using it as sidewalk chalk? [Image: Simon Hooks]

Cognitive scientists have long been interested in the thinking processes that lead to creative ideas (Simonton & Damian, 2013). Indeed, many so-called “creativity tests” are actually measures of the thought processes believed to underlie the creative act (Simonton, 2003b). The following two measures are among the best known.The first is the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, which was introduced by Mednick (1962). Mednick believed that the creative process requires the ability to associate ideas that are considered very far apart conceptually. The RAT consists of items that require the respondent to identify a word that can be associated to three rather distinct stimulus words. For example, what word can be associated with the words “widow, bite, monkey”? The answer is spider (black widow spider, spider bite, spider monkey). This particular question is relatively easy, others are much more difficult, but it gives you the basic idea.

The second measure is the Unusual Uses Task (Guilford, 1967; Torrance, 1974). Here, the participant is asked to generate alternative uses for a common object, such as a brick. The responses can be scored on four dimensions: (a) fluency, the total number of appropriate uses generated; (b) originality, the statistical rarity of the uses given; (c) flexibility, the number of distinct conceptual categories implied by the various uses; and (d) elaboration, the amount of detail given for the generated uses. For example, using a brick as a paperweight represents a different conceptual category than using its volume to conserve water in a toilet tank. The capacity to produce unusual uses is but one example of the general cognitive ability to engage in divergent thinking (Guilford, 1967). Unlike convergent thinking, which converges on the single best answer or solution, divergent thinking comes up with multiple possibilities that might vary greatly in usefulness.

Unfortunately, many different cognitive processes have been linked to creativity (Simonton & Damian, 2013). That is why we cannot use the singular; there is no such thing as the “creative process.” Nonetheless, the various processes do share one feature: All enable the person to “think outside the box” imposed by routine thinking—to venture into territory that would otherwise be ignored (Simonton, 2011). Creativity requires that you go where you don’t know where you’re going.

Link to Learning

Test your own creativity at this website by taking one of five common creativity tests.

Try It


analytical intelligence: aligned with academic problem solving and computations
convergent thinking: the opposite of divergent thinking, the capacity to narrow in on the single “correct” answer or solution to a given question or problem (e.g., giving the right response on an intelligence tests)
creativity: ability to generate, create, or discover new ideas, solutions, and possibilities
creative intelligence: ability to produce new products, ideas, or inventing a new, novel solution to a problem
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: the opposite of convergent thinking, the capacity for exploring multiple potential answers or solutions to a given question or problem (e.g., coming up with many different uses for a common object)
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