Specific Intelligence: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Take a look at specific intelligence as compared to traditional views of intelligence. We'll introduce Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and discuss an example.

Specific Intelligence

We've all heard of the concept of intelligence and IQ points, but what do these things really mean? Albert Einstein supposedly had an IQ well over 160, which makes him a pretty smart cookie. Then again, you certainly are better at something than Albert Einstein. Sure, he was an amazing mathematician and logician, but he couldn't also have been an amazing painter, athlete, chef, and listener, right? This is where we come to the concept of specific intelligence, which is a person's aptitude in individual 'modalities' or abilities rather than the more general understanding of intelligence.

The most common means of talking about intelligence uses the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, system. Your IQ is determined by your score on a specific test - frequently the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test - and is measured as your mental age (which is your score on the test) divided by your chronological age, then multiplied by 100. The test is designed so that the average score will always be 100, which means that your mental and chronological age are equal. Since its first use in the 20th century, the IQ score has been the subject of controversy. Can you really obtain all the necessary information to determine someone's intelligence based on a single test? What about people who have an amazing ability to paint, compose music, or write beautiful poetry? Scientists and psychologists knew the method was imperfect, but it took nearly 70 years before a good alternative was discovered.

Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published his seminal work Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In this work he laid out his critique of the traditional view of intelligence as well as his theory of multiple intelligences. To Gardner there was no such thing as one single factor or quotient of intelligence. Instead, Gardner introduced seven 'modalities' in which each person has differing levels of competence. These abilities - logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal - compose what can be referred to as a person's 'intelligence'.


Gardner's theory was developed out of his belief that the view of intelligence measured by IQ was far too narrow. Instead, Gardner's theory describes intelligence as being composed of the aforementioned seven abilities, with each operating independently of the other. The traditional IQ test only measures two of Gardner's seven abilities: logical-mathematical and linguistic. You can see how this is limiting. For instance, a person may have an average IQ score but be an amazing artist. By discounting these other strengths, the IQ test doesn't achieve a true measure of a person's abilities.

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