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The conventional wisdom is that people may have relatively high levels of intelligence in an academic setting and yet show little intelligence in practical settings, or that they may show relatively high levels of intelligence in practical settings but more modest levels of intelligence in academic settings. Of course, no one would claim that such an inverse relationship always holds and there are numerous examples of people who perform well (or poorly) in both academic and practical contexts. The conventional wisdom may be taken as suggesting, therefore, that, on average, there may not be much of a systematic relationship between academic and practical aspects of intelligence.
But it is possible that the conventional wisdom goes little beyond an "I know a person who ..." kind of thinking (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). In other words, it may be nothing more than an example of the representativeness heuristic (Kahneman & Tversky, 1972), whereby people take one or a few instances with which they are familiar and assume that they apply more generally to a population as a whole.
A substantial body of psychological theory makes essentially the same claim as the conventional wisdom. One of the earliest psychologists to stake this theoretical claim was an experimental psychologist, Edward Thorndike (1924), who argued that social intelligence is distinct from the kind of intelligence measured by conventional intelligence tests. Many others subsequently have made this claim as well (see review in Kihlstrom & Cantor, 2000). A related claim was made by a well-known psychometrician, J. P. Guilford (1967), who separated behavioral content from more typical kinds of test-like content in his theory of the structure of intellect. More recently, Howard Gardner (1983, 1999) has argued that interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences are distinct from the more academic ones (e.g., linguistic and logical-mathematical) and Salovey and Mayer (1990; see also Goleman, 1995; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000) have further suggested the separateness of emotional intelligence. Neisser (1976) proposed that the conventional wisdom accurately reflects two different kinds of intelligence, academic and practical.
The psychological theory underlying the present research makes a related claim, namely, for a distinction between analytical intelligence (or what Neisser refers to as "academic intelligence" -- the two terms will be used interchangeably in this article) and practical intelligence (Sternberg, 1985, 1988, 1997, 1999b). According to Sternberg's theory, the basic information-processing components underlying abstract analytical and practical intelligence are the same (e.g., defining problems, formulating strategies, inferring relations, and so on). But differences in tasks and situations requiring the two kinds of intelligence, and hence, in the concrete contexts in which they are used, can render the correlations between scores on tests of the two kinds of intelligence trivial or, in principle, negative. People who well apply a set of processes in one context may not be those who well apply them in another.
Our argument in this article is not over whether analytical or academic intelligence matters at all. We believe there is solid evidence that the kind of analytical intelligence measured by conventional kinds of intelligence tests predicts performance, at least to some degree, in a variety of situations (see Barrett & Depinet, 1991; Carroll, 1993; Gottfredson, 1997; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Hunt, 1995; Hunter & Hunter, 1984; Jensen, 1998; Neisser et al., 1996; Schmidt & Hunter, 1981, 1998; Wigdor & Garner, 1982). Hence, we would not necessarily want to test for practical competence rather than for intelligence (McClelland, 1973), but instead, for practical competence in addition to the particularly academic form of intelligence, because both might predict various kinds of performance relatively independently. Our argument in this article is that measures of both kinds of intelligence can be important in a variety of situations.
A growing body of empirical data suggests that there indeed may be a true psychological distinction between academic and practical intelligence. If there is, then conventional ability tests standing alone may tell us substantially less than we ideally would want to know about people's competence in the practical situations they encounter in their daily lives. We review some of this evidence here, although more nearly complete reviews can be round in Sternberg et al. (2000), Sternberg, Wagner, Williams, and Horvath (1995), and in Wagner (2000). First, we review evidence from mainstream US culture and then from countries more associated with the developing world.
In one study (Denney & Palmer, 1981), 84 adults between the ages of 20 and 79 were given two types of reasoning problems: a traditional cognitive measure, the Twenty Questions Task, where test-takers have to figure things out by posing artificial question of a kind not likely to be posed outside a game or at least a game-like situation (e.g., "Is it living? Is it human?"); and a problem-solving task involving real-life situations such as: "If you were traveling by car and got stranded on an interstate highway during a blizzard, what would you do?" The most interesting result of this study for our present purpose was that performance on the traditional, academic, game-like measure decreased linearly after age 20, whereas performance on the practical problem-solving task increased to a peak in the 40- and 50-year-old age groups and only then declined. Practical intelligence thus showed a developmental function over age more similar to crystallized intelligence than to fluid intelligence (Horn, 1994; Horn & Cattell, 1966). Cornelius and Caspi (1987) round a similar result. These researchers explicitly looked at measures of fluid, crystallized, and practical intelligence. The practical measures involved tasks such as dealing with a landlord who would not make repairs, getting a friend to visit one more often, and what to do when one has been passed over for promotion. Fluid abilities showed increases from about age 20 or 30 to age 50 and then declined. Crystallized and practical abilities increased until about age 70 before declining. However, the measures of practical abilities showed only modest correlations with both the fluid and crystallized ability measures, suggesting that the practical measures were assessing a distinct construct.
Scribner (1984) investigated strategies used by workers in a milk-processing plant to fill orders. She round that rather than employing typical mathematical algorithms learned in the classroom, experienced assemblers used complex strategies for combining partially filled cases in a manner that minimized the number of moves required to complete an order. Although the assemblers were the least educated workers in the plant, they were able to calculate in their heads quantities expressed in different base number systems and they routinely outperformed the more highly educated white-collar workers who substituted when assemblers were absent. The order-filling performance of the assemblers was unrelated to measures of school performance, including intelligence-test scores, arithmetic-test stores, and grades.
Another series of studies of everyday mathematics involved shoppers in California grocery stores who sought to buy at the cheapest cost when the same products were available in different-sized containers. These studies were performed before cost-per-unit quantity information was routinely posted. Lave, Murtaugh, and de la Roche (1984) found that effective shoppers used mental shortcuts to get an easily obtained answer accurate (although not always completely accurate) enough to determine which size to buy. But when these same individuals were given a mental-arithmetic test that required them to do much the same thing in a paper-and-pencil format, there was no relation between their ability to do the paper-and-pencil problems and their ability to pick the best values in the supermarket.
In our own research (reviewed in Sternberg et al., 1995; 2000; Sternberg, Wagner, & Okagaki, 1993), we have investigated practical knowledge as it applies in a variety of occupations, including management, sales, teaching, and military leadership. We have devised tests of an aspect of practical intelligence -- tacit knowledge -- what one needs to know to succeed in an environment that one is not explicitly taught and that usually is not even verbalized. Our concept of tacit knowledge builds on that of Polanyi (1976), but diverges somewhat from Polanyi's conception. We view tacit knowledge as …