The theory of multiple intelligences

Video: An Oasis in a Sea of Claims

In this brief introductory video, Howard Gardner discusses the origin, purpose, and future goals of the Multiple Intelligence Oasis website. Watch the video now and let Howard Gardner welcome you to this new, vibrant community for teachers, parents, policymakers and everyone else interested in MI Theory!



Sensitivity to one’s own feelings, goals, and anxieties, and the capacity to plan and act in light of one’s own traits. Intrapersonal intelligence is not particular to specific careers; rather, it is a goal for every individual in a complex modern society, where one has to make consequential decisions for oneself. (Sometimes called self intelligence.)


The ability to interact effectively with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations (e.g. negotiator). (Sometimes called social intelligence.)


The capacity to conceptualize the logical relations among actions or symbols (e.g. mathematicians, scientists). Famed psychologist Jean Piaget believed he was studying the range of intelligences, but he was actually studying logical-mathematical intelligence.


The ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature as, for example, between one plant and another, or one cloud formation and another (e.g. taxonomist). (Sometimes called nature intelligence.)


The ability to conceptualize and manipulate large-scale spatial arrays (e.g. airplane pilot, sailor), or more local forms of space (e.g. architect, chess player).


The ability to use one’s whole body, or parts of the body (like the hands or the mouth), to solve problems or create products (e.g. dancer).


Sensitivity to the meaning of words, the order among words, and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words (e.g. poet). (Sometimes called language intelligence.)


Sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody and timbre. May entail the ability to sing, play musical instruments, and/or compose music (e.g. musical conductor).

Existential  (Spiritual intelligence)

The hypothesis of an existential intelligence has been further explored by educational researchers.


theory of multiple intelligences

The theory of multiple intelligences is a theory of intelligence that differentiates it into specific (primarily sensory) ‘modalities’, rather than seeing intelligence as dominated by a single general ability. This model was proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner articulated eight criteria for a behavior to be considered an intelligence.[1] These were that the intelligences showed: potential for brain isolation by brain damage, place in evolutionary history, presence of core operations, susceptibility to encoding (symbolic expression), a distinct developmental progression, the existence of savants, prodigies and other exceptional people, and support from experimental psychology and psychometric findings.

Gardner chose eight abilities that he held to meet these criteria:[2]musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. He later suggested that existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of inclusion.[3] Although the distinction between intelligences has been set out in great detail, Gardner opposes the idea of labeling learners to a specific intelligence. Gardner maintains that his theory of multiple intelligences should “empower learners”, not restrict them to one modality of learning.[4] According to Gardner, an intelligence is “a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.”[5]

Many of Gardner’s “intelligences” correlate with the g factor, supporting the idea of a single dominant type of intelligence. According to a 2006 study, each of the domains proposed by Gardner involved a blend of g, cognitive abilities other than g, and, in some cases, non-cognitive abilities or personality characteristics.[6]

Intelligence Modalities

Musical–rhythmic and harmonic

This area has to do with sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music. People with a high musical intelligence normally have good pitch and may even have absolute pitch, and are able to sing, play musical instruments, and compose music. They have sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody or timbre.[7][8]


This area deals with spatial judgment and the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye. Spatial ability is one of the three factors beneath g in the hierarchical model of intelligence.[8]


People with high verbal-linguistic intelligence display a facility with words and languages. They are typically good at reading, writing, telling stories and memorizing words along with dates.[8] Verbal ability is one of the most g-loaded abilities.[9] This type of intelligence is measured with the Verbal IQ in WAIS-IV.


Further information: Reason

This area has to do with logic, abstractions, reasoning, numbers and critical thinking.[8] This also has to do with having the capacity to understand the underlying principles of some kind of causal system.[7]Logical reasoning is closely linked to fluid intelligence and to general intelligence (g factor).[10]


Further information: Gross motor skill and Fine motor skill

The core elements of the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are control of one’s bodily motions and the capacity to handle objects skillfully.[8]Gardner elaborates to say that this also includes a sense of timing, a clear sense of the goal of a physical action, along with the ability to train responses.

People who have high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence should be generally good at physical activities such as sports, dance, acting, and making things.

Gardner believes that careers that suit those with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence include: athletes, dancers, musicians, actors,builders, police officers, and soldiers. Although these careers can be duplicated through virtual simulation, they will not produce the actual physical learning that is needed in this intelligence.[11]

Interpersonal (Social skills)

In theory, individuals who have high interpersonal intelligence are characterized by their sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations, and their ability to cooperate in order to work as part of a group. According to Gardner in How Are Kids Smart: Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, “Inter- and Intra- personal intelligence is often misunderstood with being extroverted or liking other people…”[12] Those with high interpersonal intelligence communicate effectively and empathize easily with others, and may be either leaders or followers. They often enjoy discussion and debate. Gardner has equated this with emotional intelligence of Goleman.”[13]

Gardner believes that careers that suit those with high interpersonal intelligence include sales persons, politicians, managers, teachers,lecturers, counselors and social workers.[14]


Further information: Introspection

This area has to do with introspective and self-reflective capacities. This refers to having a deep understanding of the self; what one’s strengths or weaknesses are, what makes one unique, being able to predict one’s own reactions or emotions.


Not part of Gardner’s original 7, naturalistic intelligence was proposed by him in 1995. ” If I were to rewrite Frames of Mind today, I would probably add an eighth intelligence – the intelligence of the naturalist. It seems to me that the individual who is readily able to recognize flora and fauna, to make other consequential distinctions in the natural world, and to use this ability productively (in hunting, in farming, in biological science) is exercising an important intelligence and one that is not adequately encompassed in the current list.” Gardner, H. (1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan, 77, 200-209. This area has to do with nurturing and relating information to one’s natural surroundings.[8] Examples include classifying natural forms such as animal and plant species and rocks and mountain types. This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef.[7] This sort of ecological receptiveness is deeply rooted in a “sensitive, ethical, and holisticunderstanding” of the world and its complexities–including the role of humanity within the greater ecosphere.[15]

Existential (Social skills)

Spiritual intelligence

Gardner did not want to commit to a spiritual intelligence, but suggested that an “existential” intelligence may be a useful construct, also proposed after the original 7 in his 1999 book.[16] The hypothesis of an existential intelligence has been further explored by educational researchers.[17]

Additional Intelligences

On January 13, 2016, Gardner mentioned in an interview with BigThink that he is considering adding the teaching-pedagogical intelligence “which allows us to be able to teach successfully to other people”.[18] In the same interview, he explicitly refused some other suggested intelligences like humour, cooking and sexual intelligence.[18]

Critical reception

Gardner argues that there is a wide range of cognitive abilities, but that there are only very weak correlations among them. For example, the theory postulates that a child who learns to multiply easily is not necessarily more intelligent than a child who has more difficulty on this task. The child who takes more time to master multiplication may best learn to multiply through a different approach, may excel in a field outside mathematics, or may be looking at and understanding the multiplication process at a fundamentally deeper level.

Intelligence tests and psychometrics have generally found high correlations between different aspects of intelligence, rather than the low correlations which Gardner’s theory predicts, supporting the prevailing theory of general intelligence rather than multiple intelligences (MI).[19] The theory has been widely criticized by mainstream psychology for its lack of empirical evidence, and its dependence on subjective judgement.[20]

Definition of intelligence

One major criticism of the theory is that it is ad hoc: that Gardner is not expanding the definition of the word “intelligence”, but rather denies the existence of intelligence as traditionally understood, and instead uses the word “intelligence” where other people have traditionally used words like “ability” and “aptitude“. This practice has been criticized byRobert J. Sternberg,[21][22] Eysenck,[23] and Scarr.[24] White (2006) points out that Gardner’s selection and application of criteria for his “intelligences” is subjective and arbitrary, and that a different researcher would likely have come up with different criteria.[25]

Defenders of MI theory argue that the traditional definition of intelligence is too narrow, and thus a broader definition more accurately reflects the differing ways in which humans think and learn.[26]

Some criticisms arise from the fact that Gardner has not provided a test of his multiple intelligences. He originally defined it as the ability to solve problems that have value in at least one culture, or as something that a student is interested in. He then added a disclaimer that he has no fixed definition, and his classification is more of an artistic judgment than fact:

Ultimately, it would certainly be desirable to have analgorithm for the selection of an intelligence, such that any trained researcher could determine whether a candidate’s intelligence met the appropriate criteria. At present, however, it must be admitted that the selection (or rejection) of a candidate’s intelligence is reminiscent more of an artistic judgment than of a scientific assessment.[27]

Generally, linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities are called intelligences, but artistic, musical, athletic, etc. abilities are not. Gardner argues this causes the former to be needlessly aggrandized. Certain critics are wary of this widening of the definition, saying that it ignores “the connotation of intelligence … [which] has always connoted the kind of thinking skills that makes one successful in school.”[28]

Gardner writes “I balk at the unwarranted assumption that certain human abilities can be arbitrarily singled out as intelligence while others cannot.”[29] Critics hold that given this statement, any interest or ability can be redefined as “intelligence”. Thus, studying intelligence becomes difficult, because it diffuses into the broader concept of ability or talent. Gardner’s addition of the naturalistic intelligence and conceptions of the existential and moral intelligences are seen as the fruits of this diffusion. Defenders of the MI theory would argue that this is simply a recognition of the broad scope of inherent mental abilities, and that such an exhaustive scope by nature defies a one-dimensional classification such as an IQ value.

The theory and definitions have been critiqued by Perry D. Klein as being so unclear as to be tautologous and thus unfalsifiable. Having a high musical ability means being good at music while at the same time being good at music is explained by having a high musical ability.[30]

Neo-Piagetian criticism

Andreas Demetriou suggests that theories which overemphasize the autonomy of the domains are as simplistic as the theories that overemphasize the role of general intelligence and ignore the domains. He agrees with Gardner that there are indeed domains of intelligence that are relevantly autonomous of each other.[31] Some of the domains, such as verbal, spatial, mathematical, and social intelligence are identified by most lines of research in psychology. In Demetriou’s theory, one of the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, Gardner is criticized for underestimating the effects exerted on the various domains of intelligences by the various subprocesses that define overall processing efficiency, such as speed of processing, executive functions, working memory, and meta-cognitive processes underlying self-awareness and self-regulation. All of these processes are integral components of general intelligence that regulate the functioning and development of different domains of intelligence.[32]

The domains are to a large extent expressions of the condition of the general processes, and may vary because of their constitutional differences but also differences in individual preferences and inclinations. Their functioning both channels and influences the operation of the general processes.[33][34] Thus, one cannot satisfactorily specify the intelligence of an individual or design effective intervention programs unless both the general processes and the domains of interest are evaluated.[35][36]

IQ tests

Gardner argues that IQ tests only measure linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities. He argues the importance of assessing in an “intelligence-fair” manner. While traditional paper-and-pen examinations favour linguistic and logical skills, there is a need for intelligence-fair measures that value the distinct modalities of thinking and learning that uniquely define each intelligence.[8]

Psychologist Alan S. Kaufman points out that IQ tests have measured spatial abilities for 70 years.[37] Modern IQ tests are greatly influenced by the Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory which incorporates a general intelligence but also many more narrow abilities. While IQ tests do give an overall IQ score, they now also give scores for many more narrow abilities.[37]

Lack of empirical evidence

According to a 2006 study many of Gardner’s “intelligences” correlate with the g factor, supporting the idea of a single dominant type of intelligence. According to the study, each of the domains proposed by Gardner involved a blend of g, of cognitive abilities other than g, and, in some cases, of non-cognitive abilities or of personality characteristics.[6]

Linda Gottfredson (2006) has argued that thousands of studies support the importance of intelligence quotient (IQ) in predicting school and job performance, and numerous other life outcomes. In contrast, empirical support for non-g intelligences is either lacking or very poor. She argued that despite this the ideas of multiple non-g intelligences are very attractive to many due to the suggestion that everyone can be smart in some way.[38]

A critical review of MI theory argues that there is little empirical evidence to support it:

To date, there have been no published studies that offer evidence of the validity of the multiple intelligences. In 1994 Sternberg reported finding no empirical studies. In 2000 Allix reported finding no empirical validating studies, and at that time Gardner and Connell conceded that there was “little hard evidence for MI theory” (2000, p. 292). In 2004 Sternberg and Grigerenko stated that there were no validating studies for multiple intelligences, and in 2004 Gardner asserted that he would be “delighted were such evidence to accrue”,[39] and admitted that “MI theory has few enthusiasts among psychometricians or others of a traditional psychological background” because they require “psychometric or experimental evidence that allows one to prove the existence of the several intelligences.”[39][40]

The same review presents evidence to demonstrate that cognitive neuroscience research does not support the theory of multiple intelligences:

… the human brain is unlikely to function via Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Taken together the evidence for the intercorrelations of subskills of IQ measures, the evidence for a shared set of genes associated with mathematics, reading, and g, and the evidence for shared and overlapping “what is it?” and “where is it?” neural processing pathways, and shared neural pathways for language, music, motor skills, and emotions suggest that it is unlikely that each of Gardner’s intelligences could operate “via a different set of neural mechanisms” (1999, p. 99). Equally important, the evidence for the “what is it?” and “where is it?” processing pathways, for Kahneman’s two decision-making systems, and for adapted cognition modules suggests that these cognitive brain specializations have evolved to address very specific problems in our environment. Because Gardner claimed that the intelligences are innate potentialities related to a general content area, MI theory lacks a rationale for the phylogenetic emergence of the intelligences.[40]

The theory of multiple intelligences is sometimes cited as an example of pseudoscience because it lacks empirical evidence or falsifiability,[41] though Gardner has argued otherwise.[42]

Use in education

Gardner defines an intelligence as “biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.”[43]According to Gardner, there are more ways to do this than just through logical and linguistic intelligence. Gardner believes that the purpose of schooling “should be to develop intelligences and to help people reach vocational and avocational goals that are appropriate to their particular spectrum of intelligences. People who are helped to do so, [he] believe[s], feel more engaged and competent and therefore more inclined to serve society in a constructive way.”[a]

Gardner contends that IQ tests focus mostly on logical and linguistic intelligence. Upon doing well on these tests, the chances of attending a prestigious college or university increase, which in turn creates contributing members of society.[44] While many students function well in this environment, there are those who do not. Gardner’s theory argues that students will be better served by a broader vision of education, wherein teachers use different methodologies, exercises and activities to reach all students, not just those who excel at linguistic and logical intelligence. It challenges educators to find “ways that will work for this student learning this topic”.[45]

Image result for teaching blackboard

James Traub‘s article in The New Republic notes that Gardner’s system has not been accepted by most academics in intelligence or teaching.[46] Gardner states that “while Multiple Intelligences theory is consistent with much empirical evidence, it has not been subjected to strong experimental tests … Within the area of education, the applications of the theory are currently being examined in many projects. Our hunches will have to be revised many times in light of actual classroom experience.”[47]

Jerome Bruner agreed with Gardner that the intelligences were “useful fictions,” and went on to state that “his approach is so far beyond the data-crunching of mental testers that it deserves to be cheered.”[48]

George Miller, a prominent cognitive psychologist, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Gardner’s argument consisted of “hunch and opinion” and Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein in The Bell Curve (1994) called Gardner’s theory “uniquely devoid of psychometric or other quantitative evidence.”[49]

In spite of its lack of general acceptance in the psychological community, Gardner’s theory has been adopted by many schools, where it is often conflated with learning styles,[50] and hundreds of books have been written about its applications in education.[51] Some of the applications of Gardner’s theory have been described as “simplistic” and Gardner himself has said he is “uneasy” with the way his theory has been used in schools.[52] Gardner has denied that multiple intelligences are learning styles and agrees that the idea of learning styles is incoherent and lacking in empirical evidence.[53]Gardner summarizes his approach with three recommendations for educators: individualize the teaching style (to suit the most effective method for each student), pluralize the teaching (teach important materials in multiple ways), and avoid the term “styles” as being confusing.[54]

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