Applied History of Psychology/Theories on Intelligence/Gardner's theory about multiple intelligence

Factorial approach dominated the research of intelligence until the 1960s. Some of the following models are examples of factorial models. Charles Spearman, in 1904, suggested that all individuals have a general intelligence factor called g, that individuals posses in varying amounts. His main idea was that an intelligent person is intelligent in all kind of tests for special abilities (like verbal or mathematical processing) and less intelligent person is generally less intelligent in a similar way (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009). Louis Leon Thurstone proposed theory in 1930’s that intelligence is composed of several different factors. The seven primary mental abilities in Thurstone's model were verbal comprehension, word fluency, number facility, spatial visualization, associative memory, perceptual speed and reasoning. Joy Paul Guilford continued Thurstone’s work and expanded the model of seven primary mental abilities to 150 different skills (Waterhouse, 2006).

A new approach emerged with the development of cognitive psychology. The basic idea was to understand what intelligence is in terms of the cognitive processes that operate when we engage in intellectual activities (Sternberg & Kaufman, 1998). The information-processing approach strives to explain what mental processes are involved in the various tests of intelligence, how rapidly and accurately are these processes carried out and what types of mental representations of information do these processes act upon. In other words, intelligence was not explained in terms of factors but rather by identifying what are the mental processes that underlie intelligent behaviour. Individuals use different processes in different tasks, and the speed and accuracy of these processes vary. According to the cognitive approach the administrator of the intelligence test must use information-processing model to identify appropriate measures of the processes used in performing the task. These measures may be something like response speed, the response to a multiple-choice item or eye movements associated with the response (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009).

Gardner’s theory about multiple intelligence

Most theories about intelligence propose that humans have a general capacity for logical reasoning. This view was challenged by Howard Gardner (1993) with his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner claimed that adults have very different roles in different cultures and performing in these roles demand different skills and abilities. These roles can yet be equally important in those cultures. Gardner argued that there is a variety of intelligences which work in combination, instead of just one underlying mental capacity (or g, for general intelligence, as Charles Spearman called it). Gardner defines intelligence as the “ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community” (1993b, p. 15) and “To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving — enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters and, when appropriate, to create an effective product — and must also entail the potential for finding or creating problems — and thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge” (1993a, p. 13).

In the theory of multiple intelligences Gardner argues that there are a wide range of different abilities operating in human mind. These abilities do not necessarily correlate strongly with each other. However, Gardner did note that only rarely do these abilities operate completely independently. Gardner emphasized that intelligence is build on society and cultural concepts. According to Gardner, western culture favours linguistic and mathematical-logical abilities over social abilities (Waterhouse, 2006).

Multiple intelligences enable people to take different roles, such as to be a plumber, farmer, physicist or teacher. Gardner points out that intelligence is “a potential, the presence of which allow an individual access to forms of thinking appropriate to specific kinds of content” (Kornhaber & Gardner, 1991, p. 155). Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences describes seven distinct kinds of intelligence that are independent of one another, each operating as a separate system in the brain according to its own rules. These are (1) linguistic, (2) musical, (3) logical-mathematical, (4) spatial, (5) bodily-kinaesthetic, (6) intrapersonal and (7) interpersonal. In 1999 he added a naturalist intelligence, making the total count to 8 different kinds of intelligences (or modules). For details see table below.

Table 1: Gadner’s seven intelligences (Adapted from Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to psychology, p. 440, 15th edition, 2009, Cengage Learning EMEA)

Type of intelligence (module) Description
Linguistic intelligence The capacity for speech, along with mechanisms dedicated to phonology (speech sounds), syntax (grammar), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (implications and uses of language in various settings).
Musical intelligence The ability to create, communicate, and understand meanings made of sound, along with mechanisms dedicated to pitch, rhythm, and timbre (sound quality).
Logical-mathematical intelligence The ability of use and appreciate relationships in the absence of action or objects - that is, to engage in abstract though.
Spatial intelligence The ability to perceive visual or spatial information, modify it, and re-create visual images without reference to the original stimulus. Includes the capacity to construct images in three dimensions and to move and rotate those images.
Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence The ability to use all or part of the body to solve problems or fashion products; includes control over fine and gross motor actions and the ability to manipulate eternal objects.
Intrapersonal intelligence The ability to distinguish among one’s own feelings, intentions, and motivations.
Interpersonal intelligence The ability to recognize and make distinctions among other people’s feelings, beliefs, and intentions.

Each kind of intelligence is analyzed from several viewpoints in Gardner’s theory: the cognitive operations involved, the appearance of prodigies and other exceptional individuals, evidence from cases of brain damage, manifestations in different cultures and the possible course of evolutionary development. Certain kinds of brain damages can impair one type of intelligence and have no effect on the others (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009). Individual differences are explained by assuming that people are characterized by a unique combinations of relatively stronger or weaker intelligences. However, Gardner notes that all normal people can apply all of the intelligences to some extent and that the capacities of adults in different cultures represent different combinations of the various intelligences (Gardner, 2004a).

Gardner and his colleagues have claimed that schools should have “intelligence-fair” tests, as paper-and-pencil tests cannot assesses all the abilities. For example, putting together gears could be used for demonstrating spatial skills (Gardner, 2004b). The theory can be used for explaining why some people with brilliant college records fail miserable in work-life and why poorly performing students can become charismatic leaders (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009).

Additional intelligences

After the original listing of the intelligences in Frames of mind, which was published in 1983, a great deal of discussion began about possible additional types of intelligences. After subsequent research Gardner and his colleagues presented four particular possibilities: a naturalist intelligence, a spiritual intelligence, existential intelligence and a moral intelligence. For details of these additional intelligences, see table below:

Table 2: Proposed additional intelligences

Type of intelligence Description
Naturalist intelligence The ability to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.
Spiritual intelligence The ability to explore the nature of existence in its multifarious guises.
Existential intelligence The ability to consider life, death, and ultimate realities and issues of life.
Moral intelligence The ability to understand right from wrong and to behave ethically correct.

A particular capacity under study was qualified as an "intelligence" after considering eight specific criteria drawn from the biological sciences, logical analysis, developmental psychology, experimental psychology, and psychometrics. The criteria to consider "candidate intelligences" (Gardner, 1999a, p. 36) are: 1) the potential for brain isolation by brain damage, 2) its place in evolutionary history, 3) the presence of core operations, 4) susceptibility to encoding, 5) a distinct developmental progression, 6) the existence of idiot-savants, prodigies and other exceptional people, 7) support from experimental psychology, and 8) support from psychometric findings

Gardner claims that naturalistic intelligence “merits addition to the list of the original seven intelligences” (Gardner, 1999, p. 52) but some of the above additional intelligences are vaguely defined and according to Gardner, there are problems for example to define the content of “spiritual intelligence” and how its effect occur on people‘s lives. Gardner wrote about spiritual intelligence that: “It seems more responsible to carve out that area of spirituality closest 'in spirit' to the other intelligences and then, in the sympathetic manner applied to naturalist intelligence, ascertain how this candidate intelligence fares. In doing so, I think it best to put aside the term spiritual, with its manifest and problematic connotations, and to speak instead of an intelligence that explores the nature of existence in its multifarious guises. Thus, an explicit concern with spiritual or religious matters would be one variety - often the most important variety - of an existential intelligence.” (Gardner, 1999, p. 59)

Also existential intelligence raises questions about what exactly it is and how does it manifest itself. Gardner uses existential intelligence to refer to individuals who like and enjoy thinking, questioning, and are curios about life, death, and ultimate realities (Gardner, 1999). Gardner argues that existential intelligence “scores reasonably well on the criteria (mentioned above)” (Gardner, 1999, p. 64).

Gardner argues that it is possible to come to an understanding what moral intelligence is and how it shows in everyday life. Gardner suggests that moral intelligence “is a concern with those rules, behaviours and attitudes that govern the sanctity of life - in particular, the sanctity of human life and, in many cases, the sanctity of any other living creatures and the world they inhabit” (Gardner, 1999, p. 70). If we accept the existence of a moral realm is it then possible to speak of moral intelligence? If it “connotes the adoption of any specific moral code” then Gardner does not find the term moral intelligence acceptable (Gardner, 1999, p. 75). Furthermore, he argues, researchers and writers have not as yet “captured the essence of the moral domain as an instance of human intelligence” (Gardner, 1999, p. 76).

In Gardner’s view: “As I construe it, the central component in the moral realm or domain is a sense of personal agency and personal stake, a realization that one has an irreducible role with respect to other people and that one's behaviour towards others must reflect the results of contextualized analysis and the exercise of one's will.... The fulfilment of key roles certainly requires a range of human intelligences - including personal, linguistic, logical and perhaps existential - but it is fundamentally a statement about the kind of person that has developed to be. It is not, in itself, an intelligence. 'Morality' is then properly a statement about personality, individuality, will, character - and, in the happiest cases, about the highest realization of human nature.” (Gardner, 1999, p. 77) Hence it seems like Gardner is willing to accept only naturalistic intelligence to this theory about multiple intelligences. Only further evaluation and empirical research can show should the rest of the additional intelligence types be accepted as part of the theory or not.

Implementations of the theory

Education facilities have traditionally emphasized the counting, reading and writing skills, which refer to logical and linguistic intelligence. Many students do reasonable well in these areas and score quite well in IQ tests. But, there are students who do not. Gardner’s theory argues that these students will have an option to excel if education facilities take a broader view on what intelligence is. Different methodologies should be used, exercises and activities which reach all students and not only those who excel at linguistic and logical intelligence. However, most teachers must already know that students learn in different ways. To them this theory hardly offers anything that they do not know already.

A study conducted by the Harvard University of 41 schools using the theory came to the conclusion that in these schools there was "a culture of hard work, respect, and caring; a faculty that collaborated and learned from each other; classrooms that engaged students through constrained but meaningful choices, and a sharp focus on enabling students to produce high-quality work."(Kornhaber, 2004)

Gardner himself was doubtful about the appeal his theory would have among educators: “At first blush, this diagnosis would appear to sound a death knell for formal education. It is hard to teach one intelligence; what if there are seven? It is hard to enough to teach even when anything can be taught; what to do if there are distinct limits and strong constraints on human cognition and learning?” (Gardner & Hatch, 1993: xxiii) However, Gardner responded to his question by pointing out that psychology does not control education but only helps educators to understand the conditions within which education takes place. In Gardner’s view, seven kinds of intelligence would allow seven ways to teach, rather than just one.

Criticism on Garner’s theory

As mentioned earlier, Gardner believes that the diversity of the adult roles, as employees for example, cannot be explained by a single underlying intelligence, and hence proposes that here are at least seven, or eight, different intelligence types. Gardner defines intelligence as an ability to solve problems or create products which are valuable in the given culture where the individual lives. Hence, it could be argued that a dancer, a singer and a plumber are just as “intelligent” as a mathematician, engineer or a physicist (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009).

Although Gardner’s theory about multiple intelligence types can be credited for expanding the view on intelligence, the problem with it is the confusion of different intelligence types. Mike Anderson points out that Gardner’s intelligence types are ill-defined - they are “sometimes a behaviour, sometimes a cognitive process and sometimes a structure in the brain” (1992, p. 67). Anderson’s theory is based on the idea of general intelligence, which is a classical view proposed by Louis Thurstone and others. Further on, Gardner’s theory does not take a stand whether knowledge is important to intelligence or not. Stephen Ceci has developed a theory which proposes that intelligence rests on multiple cognitive potentials. These potentials are biologically based, but their expression depends on the knowledge an individual has amassed in a particular domain. Hence knowledge is crucial to intelligence in Ceci’s theory. (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009, p. 444). Gardner does not explain well the role of knowledge in his intelligence theory.

Another question is the concept of intelligence types as Gardner describes them. Some psychologist view intelligence as a general ability for comprehension and reasoning that manifests itself by problem solving, for example. This is a classical view that was held by Alfred Binet, among others. Binet’s test contains many kinds of items, but he still observed that intelligent children tended to score higher than less intelligent children in all of the test items. This led Binet to assume that there is a basic underlying ability which is sampled in different tasks (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009). Similarly David Wechsler also believed that “intelligence is the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal with his environment” (Wechsler, 1958). It is important to note that also Wechsler’s intelligence test relied on several scales, as described in the tables presented in the appendix. Still both Binet and Wechsler assumed that intelligence is a general capacity for reasoning, instead of several intelligence types or modules as Gardner assumes in his theory.

Gardner is a neurophysiologist and hence has studied individuals who suffered a brain damage and were unable to perform on one specific area. Frequent criticism is that his theories emerged from his own intuitions and reasoning and not from comprehensive empirical research. (Waterhouse, 2006). This is alarming because if there is not a proper set of tests to identify and measure different intelligence types, then this theory has only little to be based on. Gardner explained: “I once thought it possible to create a set of tests of each intelligence - an intelligence-fair version to be sure - and then simply to determine the correlation between the scores on the several tests. I now believe that this can only be accomplished if someone developed several measures for each intelligence and then made sure that people were comfortable in dealing with the materials and methods used to measure each intelligence.” (Gardner, 1999, p. 98)


Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has potential in education. It has encouraged educators and psychologists to look beyond the classical view of intelligence. Gardner’s theory also emphasizes the role of arts in human intelligence instead of just linguistic, spatial and logical-mathematical intelligence. Gardner’s theory can be useful in finding out in what kind of areas an individual would excel, but the theory answers poorly to the question what exactly intelligence is and how it should be measured. The theory lacks empirical research to be build on and the main idea of different intelligence types, and how they function, is defined badly.

The question still remains: is intelligence a general capacity for reasoning, an unique blend of different intelligence styles or something else? There are plenty of different theories, empirical research and studies about intelligence, but even defining the word “intelligence” is difficult for a psychologist because his or her definition would reflect his or her adapted theory about what it is, and theories of intelligence differ widely. Gardner suggests that intelligence should be considered more broadly and that individuals can be intelligent in many different ways but perhaps intelligence is just a label that an intelligence test measures. There is some evidence that supports this “label” view, for example, intelligence tests and achievement in school tends to have validity coefficients of about .50, which is not a very high outcome (Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus, Wagenaar, 2009).


Table 3: Items from the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (Adapted from Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to psychology, p. 437, 15th edition, 2009, Cengage Learning EMEA)

Test Description
Verbal Reasoning
Vocabulary Defines words, such as “dollar” and “envelope”
Comprehension Answer questions, such as “Where do people buy food?” and “Why do people comb their hair?”
Absurdities Identifies the “funny” aspects of a picture, such as a girl riding a bicycle on a lake or a bald man combing his hair.
Verbal relations Tells how the first three items in a sequence are alike and how they differ from the fourth: scarf, tie, muffler, shirt.
Quantitative reasoning
Quantitative Performs simple arithmetic tasks, such as selecting a die with six spots because the number of spots equals the combination of a two-spot die and four-spot die.
Number series Gives the next two numbers in a series, such as 20 16 12 8 __ __
Equation building 2 3 5 + +. One correct response would be 2 + 3 = 5
Abstract/Visual reasoning
Pattern analysis Copies a simple design with blocks
Copying Copies a geometrical drawing demonstrated by the examiner, such as a rectangle intersected by two diagonals.
Short-term memory
Bead Memory Shown a picture of different-shaped beads stacked on a stick. Reproduces the sequence from memory by placing real beads on the stick.
Memory for sentences Repeats after the examiner sentences such as “It is time to go to go to sleep” and “Ken painted a picture for his mother’s birthday”.
Memory for digits Repeats after the examiner a series of digits, such as 5-7-8-3, forward and backward.
Memory for objects Shown pictures of individual objects, such as a clock and a elephant, one at a time. Identifies the objects in the correct order of their appearance in a picture that also includes extraneous objects; for example, a bus, a clown, an elephant, eggs, and a clock.

Typical examples of items from the 1986 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale for 6- to 8-year-old

Table 4: Test composing the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Adapted from Atkinson & Hilgard’s Introduction to psychology, p. 438, 15th edition, 2009, Cengage Learning EMEA)

Test Description
Verbal scale
Information Questions tap a general range of information, for example, “What is the capital of Italy?”
Comprehension Tests practical information and ability to evaluate past experience, for example, “Why do we put stamps on a letter to be mailed?”
Arithmetic Verbal problems testing arithmetic reasoning.
Similarities Asks in what way two objects or concepts (for example, recipe and map) are similar; assesses abstract thinking.
Digit span A series of digits presented auditorily (for example, 7-5-6-3-8) is repeated in a forward or backward direction; tests attention and rote memory.
Vocabulary Assesses word knowledge
Letter number sequencing Orally presented letters and numbers in a mixep-up order must be recorded and repeated, first with the numbers in ascending order and then with the letter in alphabetical order; assesses working memory.
Performance scale
Digit symbol A timed coding task in which numbers must be associated with marks of various shapes; assesses speed of learning and writing
Picture completion The missing part of an incompletely drawn picture must be discovered and named; assesses visual alertness, visual memory and perceptual organization.
Block design Pictured designs must be copied with blocks, assesses ability to perceive and analyze patterns.
Picture arrangement A series of comic-strips pictures must be arranged in the right sequence to tell a story; assesses understanding of social situations.
Matrix reasoning A geometric shape that is similar in some way to a sample shape must be selected from a set of possible alternatives; assesses perceptual organization.
Object assembly Puzzle pieces must be assembled to form a complete object; assesses ability to deal with part-whole relationships.
Symbol search A series of paired groups of symbols are presented, a target group of two symbols and a search group. Examinee must determine if either target symbol appears in the search group; assesses processing.

The tests of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children are similar to those of the adult scale, with some modifications.


Anderson, M. (1992), Intelligence and development: A cognitive theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gardner, H. (1993a) Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

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