Innovative Learning

Triarchic Theory (Robert Sternberg)

The triarchic theory of intelligence consists of three subtheories: (i) the componential subtheory which outlines the structures and mechanisms that underlie intelligent behavior categorized as metacognitive, performance, or knowlege acquistion components , (ii) the experiential subtheory that proposes intelligent behavior be interpreted along a continuum of experience from novel to highly familar tasks/situations, (iii) the contextual subtheory which specifies that intelligent behavior is defined by the sociocultural context in which it takes place and involves adaptation to the environment, selection of better environments, and shaping of the present environment.


According to Sternberg, a complete explanation of intelligence entails the interaction of these three subtheories. The componential subtheory specifies the potential set of mental processes that underlies behavior (i.e., how the behavior is generated) while the contextual subtheory relates intelligence to the external world in terms of what behaviors are intelligent and where. The experiential subtheory addresses the relationship between the behavior in a given task/situation and the amount of experience of the individual in that task/situation.

The componential subtheory is the most developed aspect of the triarchic theory and is based upon Sternberg (1977) which presents an information processing perspective for abilities. One of the most fundamental components according to Sternberg's research are the metacognition or "executive" processes that control the strategies and tactics used in intelligent behavior.


The triarchic theory is a general theory of human intelligence. Much of Sternberg's early research focused on analogies and syllogistic reasoning. Sternberg has used the theory to explain exceptional intelligence (gifted and retardation) in children and also to critique existing intelligence tests. Sternberg (1983) outlines the implications of the theory for skill training. Later work examines topics such as learning styles (Sternberg, 1997) and creativity (Sternberg, 1999).


Sternberg (1985) describes the results of various analogy experiments that support the triarchic theory. For example, in a study that involved adults and children solving simple analogies, he found that the youngest children solved the problems differently and theorized that this was because they had not yet developed the ability to discern higher order relations. In another study of analogies with children at a Jewish school, he discovered a systematic bias towards selection of the first two answers on the right and suggested that this could be accounted for by the right-to-left reading pattern of Hebrew.


  1. Training of intellectual performance must be socioculturally relevant to the individual
  2. A training program should provide links between the training and real-world behavior.
  3. A training program should provide explicit instruction in strategies for coping with novel tasks/situations
  4. A training program should provide expilicit instruction in both executive and non-executive information processing and interactions between the two.
  5. Training programs should actively encourage individuals to manifest their differences in strategies and styles.


Sternberg, R.J. (1977). Intelligence, Information Processing, and Analogical Reasoning. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sternberg, R.J. (1985). Beyond IQ. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (1983). Criteria for intellectual skills training. Educational Researcher,12, 6-12.

Sternberg, R. J.  (1997). Thinking styles. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). (1999)  Handbook of creativity.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Related Web Sites

For more about Sternberg and his work, see: