What are intelligences?

Notes by Howard Gardner

Within psychology, there has been over a century‘s worth of research on human traits, skills, capabilities – once termed ‘human faculties’. Some conceptualizations of the candidate traits are well defined and are measured in consensual ways. But many others continue to be in dispute. In addition, new discoveries – from study of the brain, or genetics, or psychological experiments or anthropological investigations – cause us to rethink definitions and findings that had once seemed settled.

This website is not designed as an introductory course in social science, nor does it lay claim to resolving issues with which scholars and practitioners continue to grapple. But it is important to attempt to define intelligence/intelligences and to distinguish those terms from others with which they might be conflated or confused. Individuals need to better understand that intelligences, personality traits, learning styles and character strengths are distinct entities. Upon personal reflection, individuals may be able to better live their lives effectively, by identifying and utilizing their various strengths in unison.

Most societies have a way of describing or ranking individuals who are good at solving certain kinds of problems, typically those posed in school and school-like settings. For almost a century, societies influenced by Western psychology have described individuals in terms of how innately intelligent, smart, bright, or clever they are. And the intelligence of individuals is typically determined by their performance on a written or oral test, often called an Intelligence test or IQ test.

On the basis of research in several disciplines and with several populations, Howard Gardner reached the conclusion that the cognitive capacities of human being are not adequately encompassed by positing a single intelligence. Rather, as a species, human beings are better characterized as having a number of cognitive capacities that are relatively independent of one another—these are called the “multiple intelligences.” More formally defined, intelligences are human biopsychological potentials (that is, the potentials of our minds and our brains). Each intelligence is a form of information processing, sensitive to the kinds of information found in our environments. The intelligences allow us to solve problems or to create products that are valued in the societies in which human beings live. Their use extends far beyond success in a certain kind of school or school-like setting.

Personality Traits
The kinds of ways in which human beings relate to their experiences. At a gross level, psychologists distinguish five major personality traits:

  • Openness

  • Conscientiousness

  • Extraversion

  • Agreeableness

  • Neuroticism

The Myer-Briggs Inventory reflects Carl Jung’s analysis of human personality. While widely employed by therapists, counselors, and in the working world, this instrument does not have much support within academic psychology. Among the M-B dimensions are two forms of perceiving (sensation and intuition) and two forms of judging (thinking and feeling). The most well-known scales on the M-B are Introversion (concern with oneself) and Extroversion (relating self to others).

Learning Styles, Working Styles
The ways in which individuals approach a range of activities. There is little agreement among psychologists about the validity of the concept of learning styles, and how best to define them. One of the most common sets of learning styles is Right Brain vs Left Brain thinking. Another commonly proposed taxonomy is the Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic (VAK) trichotomy. Learning styles are often conflated with multiple intelligences or vice versa, but this equation is not legitimate. Intelligences describe an individuals’ computing power (John is better than Joe in his musical capacity), while learning styles describe how a person approaches activities (Joe needs to see examples, while John likes to listen to lectures).

Character Strengths
Traits that allow human beings to navigate their lives in an effective manner. Effectiveness is achieved by striking a healthy balance between one’s own needs and the needs of others. Character strengths are an important part of personal identity; they are the characteristics by which we understand what is best about ourselves and others. Character strengths, in turn, determine how individuals act upon their talents, abilities, and intelligences. Growing out of the movement of positive psychology, researchers have identified 24 specific traits. These have been organized into six groups: Wisdom and Knowledge (e.g. open mindedness); Courage (e.g. integrity); Justice (e.g. fairness); Temperance (e.g. prudence); Humanity (e.g. kindness); and Transcendence (e.g. appreciation).

Other Dimensions of Human Psychology

  • Habits / Behaviors: Performances which one does regularly (e.g. being on time).

  • Disposition: Inclination to perform in a certain way (e.g. when faced with a problem, one has the disposition to sit back and reflect).

  • Motivation: The reasons why one may act in a certain way or not—motivation can be extrinsic (because of external reward); intrinsic (the act is its own reward); or both.

  • Skills: The capacity to perform an action or carry out a mode of thinking; skills develop with practice, and decline when no longer exercised.

  • Will: Motivation to carry out the action or mode of thought of which one is capable.

  • Creativity: Use of one or more intelligences to pose new questions, give new answers, and create original works.