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Robert J. Sternberg

From childhood anxiety to a career, International collaborations and a "labor of love"

American cognitive psychologist who developed a new model of learning and intelligence.

From childhood anxiety to a career

Robert J. Sternberg was born in December 1949 in Newark, New Jersey. As a child growing up in Maple-wood, New Jersey, Sternberg suffered from a problem common to many children. An otherwise bright student, he suffered such severe anxiety when taking IQ tests that he consistently scored low. His active brain was evident when he discovered as a sixth grader re-taking a test among fifth graders that his anxiety was pointless. In seventh grade, his science project was called the "Sternberg Test of Mental Ability." He gave the test to his classmates along with the traditional Stanford-Binet intelligence scales that he had discovered in the town library. From this point on, Sternberg devoted his time to researching the processes of testing and learning.

As a student at Yale University, Sternberg spent his summers working for the Psychological Corporation in New York, and the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, alongside writers who wrote standardized test materials. While at Yale he studied with Endel Tulving, graduating summa cum laude in 1972 with a BA in psychology. He also received the prestigious Wohlenberg Prize and was named to Phi Beta Kappa. Sternberg received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1975. While at Stanford he studied with Gordon Bower and received the Sidney Siegel Memorial Award. He also continued to work on investigating the analytical processes people utilize while taking intelligence tests. Along with his work as the IBM Professor of Education and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at Yale, Sternberg has enjoyed a prolific career as a writer and editor. In 1994, he served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) Division 1 (General) and in 1994–95 as president of APA Division 15 (Educational). In all, he is a fellow of nine APA divisions, and has won two APA awards, the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology in 1981, and the McCandless Award. Other awards have come to him from around the world.

According to a profile of Sternberg from the APA Monitor,"Sternberg views himself as a generalist dedicated to improving the profession for all psychologists." His book, Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence, however, began to define his studies more closely. Sternberg's compilation of the "componential" theory associated information processing stages with specific brain functions. To that, he added the "experiential" and "contextual," or external, to signify the entirety of cognitive ability, re-defining intelligence. Sternberg believes that life, not what is learned in the classroom, determines intelligence. His creative approach to understanding human intelligence as a composition of creativity, emotional balance, and cognitive abilities has made him a celebrity not only among his professional colleagues, but with the general public, especially through his books, The Triangle of Love, Love The Way You Want It, and Love Is a Story: A New Theory of Relationships. Sternberg has been determined to keep the integrity of his occupation at the highest level and yet available to those other than seasoned professionals. His writing style is conversational and not prohibitively academic.

His work has also extended into studying learning disabilities in children and understanding exactly what such a designation implies. One book he has published on this subject is Our Labeled Children co-authored with Elena L. Grigorenko and published in 1999.

International collaborations and a "labor of love"

Sternberg's research group is actively connected to groups around the world, including Israel, Tanzania, France, Norway, and Spain. Sternberg describes the various projects of his students as "interrelated" while individually developing a specific focus. For Sternberg himself, the study of love and close relationships often catches his greatest interest. Sternberg states that "here, we are studying issues such as people's conceptions of love, the growth and decline of love over the course of relationships, and the structure of love in different relationships."

Sternberg not only studies love in the research setting. His marriage to Alejandra Campos, also trained in clinical psychology, has produced two children, Seth and Sara. Sternberg has observed that his children also have the same test anxiety from which he suffered, even though they are "A" students. In an interview with Psychology Today in 1986, Sternberg told Robert J. Trotter "it's really important to me that my work has an effect that goes beyond the psychology journals. I really think it's important to bring intelligence into the real world and the real world into intelligence."

See also Intelligence quotient

Jane Spear

Further Reading

Paul, Annie Murphy. Sternberg: a wayward path to wisdom. Psychology Today, May-June 1998.

Sternberg, Robert J. Successful Intelligence. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Trotter, Robert J. Three heads are better than one. Psychology Today, August 1986.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists