Cover Story

When Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, did poorly on IQ tests, he studied intelligence. When he failed at romance, he studied love. When he gave bad advice to others, he studied wisdom.

"When I ran out of ideas, I started studying creativity," said the Tufts University dean of arts and sciences.

The answers he found in all of those areas have contributed to his remarkable success. "So I very much believe in the idea that psychology can help you in your everyday life," said Sternberg at an APA Annual Convention session.

To demonstrate the power of psychology in our own lives, Sternberg asked audience members to take three quizzes he designed based on his research on learning, love and conflict resolution.

The exercises showed that when your style in those critical life areas doesn't match the styles of others you're involved with, you're less likely to be successful.

How we think and learn

Sternberg's first quiz determined people's thinking styles at work. His research suggests that people have varying levels of each of three styles:

  • Those with a legislative style like to create their own rules and do things their own way. They prefer writing papers, designing projects, and creating new businesses or educational systems.

  • Those with an executive style like to follow rules. They prefer solving problems, applying rules to problems, and applying theories or therapies to particular cases.

  • Those with a judicial style like to evaluate rules, procedures and existing structures. They enjoy writing critiques, giving opinions, judging people and their work, and evaluating programs.

No one style is better overall than the others, he said, they are just different. What works depends on the task at hand and the situation in which it needs to be done.

When people with a high level of one style take a course that emphasizes another style, the results are not always optimal. For example, if you are a student with a legislative style taking a course that has many multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests, you are not likely to perform as well. But if the course requires essays, projects or performances that allow you to create your own structure, you'll have an advantage.

In fact, in one study he and Elena Grigorenko, PhD, found that teachers gave higher grades to students whose styles matched their own. "The practical implication is that often a teacher or supervisor will think you're better not because you're better but because you're a better match to his or her style," he said.

This has important implications for educators, he said. "If you teach in ways that help kids with different styles, you enable more kids to learn."

Lucky in love?

Style mismatches can also gauge how successful you'll be in love, said Sternberg. His triangular theory of love posits that there are three components of love relationships:

  • Intimacy: feelings of closeness, connectedness, trust, friendship and emotional connection.

  • Passion: feelings of need, obsession, fixation, excitement, lust and necessity.

  • Commitment: feelings of permanence, longevity, stability and calmness.

His research has found that all three of these "are positively correlated with successful relationships," he said. So, if you have higher scores in these areas, you are more likely to be satisfied with your love relationships. If you have lower scores, he said, "I'm going to be operating a matchmaking service outside after this session."

But even more important than high scores in these areas is a match in your relationship priorities as compared to your partner's, said Sternberg. For example, if you emphasize intimacy and your partner emphasizes passion, the relationship may not work as well. Or if you are happy with a certain level of intimacy but your partner wants even more, "it creates stress in the relationship," he said.

How you sort it out

Sternberg's third quiz helped people determine their conflict resolution styles. His research suggests there are seven styles of conflict resolution: taking physical action, pursuing economic harm, having a wait-and-see approach, accepting the situation, stepping down the conflict, seeking third-party mediation and undermining an opponent's self-esteem.

His studies with Larry Soriano and Diane Dobson, conducted across a wide variety of conflict situations, including international conflict and organizational strife as well as personal disagreements, found that "people tend to be somewhat consistent in the way they resolve conflicts."

More important, he found that the most successful of the strategies are the tamer solutions: stepping down the conflict, asking a third party for help, accepting the situation and taking a wait-and-see approach. The conflict resolution strategies most often used in international and organizational disputes -- namely physical and economic action -- don't work as well.

"And then some nations wonder why they don't have more success in resolving conflicts," Sternberg said.