The Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise

reviewed by Steven J. Condly - 2004

coverTitle: The Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise
Author(s): Robert J. Sternberg & Elena L. Grigorenko (Editors)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521007763, Pages: 294, Year: 2003
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The opening remarks made by editors Sternberg and Grigorenko regarding the practical and theoretical need for unifying the psychologies of ability, competency, and expertise are well-founded. As any student of psychology knows, it does not take long for one to be struck with the unsettling realization that scientists can describe, and draw conclusions about, identical phenomena in markedly different ways. In an effort to advance unification, an edited book, with contributors noted for both their excellent research and their differing viewpoints, makes great sense. For the first time, interested readers have at their fingertips mutually competing and complementing perspectives defined, explained, and defended. Readers are now afforded the opportunity to draw their own conclusions regarding the relative merits of what is presented, but they are assured of having the rival positions fairly represented.


A comment on a curious omission, however, is in order. Why was intelligence, or g, not an overt part of the title? Has the term fallen that much out of favor? To be sure, most contributors did include a discussion of the relative importance of this construct to the other three, but it probably would have been wise (or, at the least, quite interesting) to have included such a construct, demand that it be discussed, and allow the reader more opportunity to examine how each perspective deals with the hypothesized flow from general intelligence, to generalized abilities, on to developed competencies, and finally to attained expertise.


All contributors were charged with six tasks: 1) to present their views on the nature of the three phenomena, 2) to explain the interrelationships among the three phenomena, 3) to explicate how the three can be assessed, 4) to provide supporting empirical data, 5) to compare their positions with alternatives, and 6) to discuss implications of their positions. The editors, individual contributors themselves, did an admirable job of holding to these requirements. This also helps the reader make reasonable comparisons.


In a break with tradition, the reader would actually be well advised to read the final chapter first. Although the Preface properly lays out the scope and mission of the book, Mayer’s final chapter not only summarizes, but situates, each of the perspectives in a model that assists the reader in comparative analysis. This chapter does not contribute a perspective; rather, it summarizes, simplifies, highlights, and compares perspectives, and it does so masterfully. No perspective is caricaturized, misrepresented, ignored, or pushed; each is treated with fairness and is given due process.


In this reviewer’s opinion, the best comes first. Ackerman and Beier’s model and argument (the PPIK theory) are the most data-laden, and of the broadest quality. Additionally, they span the full range from g to expert-level performance. Ackerman and Beier seem to take pre-existing intelligence research the most seriously among the book’s contributors; they equate and identify previous research (such as Horn and Cattell’s Gf and Gc) with their own (the former, intelligence-as-process; the latter, ideational fluency). Finally, they actually speak extensively to a major challenging theory found elsewhere in the book, Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice theory. Overall, they make the best arguments. The only objection I have to raise is their assertion that Jensen (1998), on page 113 of his book, claims that “a child’s exposure to a traditional Western educational environment is needed to yield meaningful performance on g measures” (p. 18). In fact, Jensen discusses neurological development on page 113 of his book; perhaps Ackerman and Beier meant another page.


Krampe and Baltes come in a very close second for quality of argument, data, and ideas. They claim that intelligence and expertise relate by SOC (selection, optimization, compensation). Their major (almost exclusive) data source is adults. They note that allocation of resources for task performance shifts over the life span, away from the more innate fluid abilities (like attention) and toward the more cultural and learned (like chess pattern recognition). Their theory is engaging because it serves as a promising foundation for the development of support technologies geared to the acquisition, maintenance, and improvement of life-long competencies. As with Ackerman and Beier, they have no objection to an important role for g, but they emphasize the adaptations of resources to the demands of culture and aging.


Ceci, Barnett, and Kanaya, in spite of their protests, take a decidedly environmental approach to the development of competencies and expertise. Their chapter examines five multiplier models, models that describe how genes and the environment combine to produce competence and expertise. Varying levels of evidence are given for each, but none of the evidence is either abundant or definitive. This is why the authors must use the phrase, “the above approaches argue that powerful multiplier effects can occur” (p. 84; italics added); powerful multiplier effects can be differentially explained, and they have yet to be unequivocally demonstrated. Additionally, the question must be asked: If Dickens and Flynn (2001) demonstrate that “without …a multiplicative approach, there is the risk of underestimating the power of environmental inputs and overestimating the magnitude of genetically based variance” (Ceci, Barnett, and Kanaya, p. 71), why must the environmental inputs be underestimated and the genetic inputs overestimated? Why couldn’t it be the reverse? Is it because this would not prove the author’s point?


Among all the contributors, Ericsson leaves himself the most open to criticism from his fellow contributors. Ericsson’s contention is that there is no need to suppose a genetic predisposition or innate ability for any domain; deliberate practice is sufficient to realize expert performance. Naturally, Ericsson does not leave himself without supporting documentation; he cites his voluminous work in support of his contention, and that work is compelling. However, more so than most of the other contributors, he ignores contrary research. Research by Jensen (1998), Eysenck (1998), and Gottfredson (1986) demonstrates, in study after study, how superior general intelligence contributes to superior learning and performance. Ericsson’s evidence is unarguable, but it remains to be seen how he would reconcile his deliberate practice work with the work of the g-theorists.


The chapter by Connell, Sheridan, and Gardner is easily the most disappointing. In a very real sense it does not even belong in the book. Without exception, the contributors to this book are scientists who base their obviously competing assertions and explanations on supporting science publicized in research journals. This chapter has only 27 references; the other chapters average almost 83. Of this chapter’s 27 references, only three are from research journals (11%; one from 1967 and another from 1973); the other chapters averaged nearly 49 (58%; Howe and Davidson’s chapter too had only 27 references, but over half of them, 14, were from research journals.). Multiple intelligences was discussed as though it were fact even though, in a strict scientific sense, it is not even a theory; constructs were defined in an almost arbitrary manner (See pp. 136-137 for the authors’ definition of intelligence; the definition was based more on aesthetics than on existing scientific psychological evidence.); and competing evidence was either ignored or caricaturized (“reducing individual variation to a single dimension [as is done with the IQ test for general intelligence, for instance] has proven to be problematic in that it fails to deal with important qualitative individual differences” [p. 126]—No one has ever stated that the IQ score was the single measure that should be considered alone.). The chapter is an interesting read, and it is even thought-provoking, but it is merely descriptive and somewhat poetic; not the sort of stuff that can be used for diagnostic and prescriptive technology development. Where is the empirically-demonstrated superiority for this perspective relative to the competing perspectives, and where is the supporting data?


Grigorenko’s chapter represents a departure from the general tenor of the book in that it examines abilities, competencies, and expertise in the context of a single domain—mental disability. She hypothesizes that the study of expertise can be applied to the study of mental disability and provides evidence from the even narrower domain of single-word reading. Normally, it would be problematic to generalize from such specialization to speak to the mentally disabled in general, much less to the “normal” population of children and adults, but Grigorenko is able to buttress her data presentation with relevant psychological reasoning. The chapter is eye-opening because most researchers in the fields of intelligence and expertise probably do not spend a great deal of time thinking about mental disability and how an examination of such can, and perhaps should, influence their own theorizing. Thus, this chapter is a welcome contribution.


Howe and Davidson’s chapter is similar to Grigorenko’s in that it is domain-specific (music education and expertise), but it is much more descriptive than Grigorenko’s. They describe two stages of the study of children at various levels of musical expertise and at various stages of progression in music school. The studies provide support for Ericsson’s contention regarding the central importance of deliberate practice (though not so named in this chapter), but other findings allow for the possibility of pre-existent innate abilities (which the authors consistently deny). There is a bit too much color to the interpretation of the data presented, color in favor of one interpretation rather than another. Certainly Howe and others have done seminal work in this area, but because the research is not experimental, nor of as long a standing as traditional intelligence research, their assertion that there is no evidence of the presence of innate musical ability is somewhat suspect (Although on pages 205-206 they provide good evidence for their position.). Nevertheless, in light of research conducted with savants and related individuals who demonstrate remarkable musical proficiency in spite of limited general intellectual resources and musical training, it is too strong an assertion.


The average person would equate intelligence with prowess within a domain and with creativity. And yet, according to Simonton, intelligence, as traditionally defined and measured, differs markedly from creativity in a number of ways. From the non-normality of distribution to differing developmental and productive slopes, creativity does not seem to follow any of the theories espoused in the book. This chapter leads this reviewer to suggest the publication of a follow-up text that would deal with the issue of intelligence, expertise, and creativity. It would be fascinating to see how many of the contributors to the present text (such as Ericsson, Ackerman, and Krampe) would respond. Creativity, as described by Simonton’s research, is a fabulous annoyance; it is a recognized psychological phenomenon, has measurable traits, yet it does not seem to fit into existing theory. Researchers and Ph.D. students, take note. The only objection I have with the chapter is found in the following statement: “For emergenic characteristics, only monozygotic (identical) twins will display any familial resemblance, whereas dizygotic (fraternal) twins will be no more similar than unrelated individuals” (p. 220). In fact, dizygotic twins would be as similar as any pair of siblings, not unrelated individuals, in that they share 50% of their genes.


While the chapter by Connell, Sheridan, and Gardner was the least well-supported from a research point of view, the one by Sternberg was the least well-argued. The title was “Biological Intelligence;” and for better than half of the chapter, Sternberg gave an excellent overview of biological approaches to intelligence (that is, the biological and physiological correlated indices such as NCV and brain size). However, as Sternberg himself points out, “intelligence is always based on adaptation to the environment, but the kind of adaptation dealt with by many theories seems to be cultural—the type of adaptation measured by proxy by conventional psychometric tests of intelligence. Biological adaptation, in contrast, takes a very different form” (pp. 250-251). This form “refers to an organism’s ability to adapt to the biological / physical environment as measured by transmission of genes” (p. 253). Most high school biology students would recognize the latter quote as referring to an organism’s fitness, not intelligence. Why the need to switch to a new (and obviously baggage-laden) term? Is “fitness” inadequate? If so, why? Switching terms is nothing new in science, nor is it always problematic. We now most often speak of “working memory” instead of “short-term memory” because of its superior denotations, connotations, etc. (Baddeley, 1998). But here, too much is understood to be associated with the term “intelligence” to make it useful for Sternberg’s purposes.


We are led to believe that creatures such as viruses and cockroaches are somehow more expert than we are, and therefore more biologically intelligent, because they can survive circumstances that would certainly kill us. But are they more intelligent? Does the cockroach plan on surviving the spraying of a particular insecticide and passing its genes on to the next generation? Sternberg speaks of viruses “outwitting” us and “devising elaborate mechanisms” (p. 254). This cannot be taken seriously. Viruses do not even have neurons, let alone brains. In what sense can they be said to outwit and devise? Rather, is it not true that the viruses do what they do simply because they cannot do otherwise? Sternberg does the very thing against which he cautions later in the chapter (p. 256): he anthropomorphizes.


Sternberg is correct in specifying that intelligence is an interactive phenomenon, but that does not mean that intelligence is not a property of an individual. His challenging example of the child living in a large, locked box can itself be challenged. Sternberg asks a series of rhetorical questions regarding how intelligence might be measured, or even defined. True, traditional vocabulary and mathematics problems would be meaningless since no such information exists inside the box; however, would not intelligence be measured by the person’s attempts at escape? And what person exists in total isolation? As a matter of fact, for those few rare individuals who do suffer severe abuse of isolation, do they not all recover to some degree or another? Can it not be said, therefore, that they have some intelligence that allows them to adjust, to adapt? A giant in the field of psychology, to whom all of us owe much for his many studies and writings, Sternberg overlooks a rather fundamental assumption: Intelligence is a mental, not a physical, phenomenon. Had he written from that perspective, the chapter would have proven more acceptable.


Overall, the book challenges the reader to examine opinions and cherished beliefs. Questioned assumptions are always healthy in scientific discourse. Absent such discourse, progress is hampered. To be sure, progress in our understanding of the relationships and identities of ability (or intelligence), competency, and expertise continues, and new vistas are opening leading to exciting research opportunities. It remains to be seen, however, whether new results will bow to political pressures and other human biases as we learn more exactly how these constructs operate and relate. Certainly, good news is in the offing. Will our perspectives adjust?




Baddeley, A. (1998). Human memory: Theory and practice (revised edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


Dickens, W. T., & Flynn, J. R. (2001). Great leap forward. New Scientist, 170 (2287), 44-47.


Eysenck, H. J. (1998). Intelligence: A new look. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.


Gottfredson, L. S. (1986). Societal consequences of the g factor in employment. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 29 (3), 379-410.


Jensen, A. R. (1998). The g factor: The science of mental ability. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 299-305 ID Number: 11205, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 7:55:19 PM

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