Intelligence has long been a frequent object of study within Psychology, especially with regard to basic and differential psychology. This concept refers to the capacity of the human being to adapt to the environment successfully and efficiently, being able to use the available cognitive resources in order to establish action plans, capture the relationships between different stimuli, reasoning and logic, and manage behaviour.

There are a large number of theories and conceptualizations regarding what intelligence is or how it is structured, a variety in which it has gone from being a single, general ability to a set of relatively independent abilities. One of these conceptualizations is that of the hierarchical theories of intelligence .

Hierarchical theories of intelligence

The hierarchical theories of intelligence are those based on the conception that intelligence is formed by a set of dependent abilities one from the other, which establish a hierarchy among them in which an order is established according to which each factor encompasses several sub-factors.

This is a type of theory based on a factorial model and in which there are capacities that dominate and allow the existence of others. For example, starting from one of the models (specifically Vernon’s model) we can consider that the ability to write comes from linguistic ability, which in turn is part of and depends on verbal ability, which together with motor abilities is part of general intelligence.

In this way, we would have very specific skills that would deal with specific behaviours or govern specific parts of them, and in turn these skills would depend on a cognitive skill or higher order factor that encompasses a whole set of such skills. In turn, this and other skills of the same sublevel would depend on another one that influences all of them, and so on.

Main hierarchical models

There are different models derived from the hierarchical theories of intelligence , which have established different ways of interpreting the hierarchical order between the factors or even the type of factors involved. Below are the most well-known and relevant hierarchical theories.

1. Burt’s Model: Hierarchical Model of Mental Levels

The model developed by Cyrill Burt focuses on the proposal of the existence of a structure formed by four primary factors and a general intelligence that subsumes them , organizing this structure in five levels that go from the capture of stimuli to their processing and linkage with other cognitive elements.

Specifically, level one is that of sensation, which includes the different sensory and motor capacities available to us. This is the most basic and simple level. Subsequently, at level two, or perception level, Burt incorporates the set of processes that enable the passage to cognition of the information captured , as well as the ability to coordinate movement.

Level three includes the capacities of association, such as recognition, memory or habit , to later find in level four or of relation the different processes that allow to coordinate and manage the different mental processes.

Finally, in the fifth level is the general intelligence, which allows, influences and encompasses the previous levels.

2. Vernon’s hierarchical factorial model

One of the best known hierarchical models is that of P.E. Vernon, who established the existence of a general intelligence from which emerged the educational-verbal and motor-spatial factors , from which in turn emerged skills such as fluency, numerical ability, linguistic, creative, mechanical, spatial, psychomotor or induction.

However, the most important aspect of this model is the fact that Vernon would indicate the existence of three types of intelligence depending on the level of development of the biological potential in reality. He would name as intelligence A the biological potential of the person in terms of their capacity to develop and adapt to the environment, as intelligence B the level of ability demonstrated behaviourally in reality and as intelligence C that which can be extracted as objective proof of intelligence B extracted in intelligence tests.

3. Gustafsson’s HILI model

The model developed by Gustafsson is called the HILI model. This model includes e integrates aspects of Vernon and Cattell , and is based on a three-level structure in which at the simplest or lowest level are found the primary abilities such as rational capacity, verbal fluidity or memory, while at the intermediate level are found the factors of fluid, crystallised, visual intelligence, recovery capacity and cognitive speed and finally a higher level in which general intelligence is found.

4. Guttman Radex model

Another of the hierarchical theories of intelligence is that of Louis Guttman, who proposed a model in which the factors obtained in different psychometric tests were ordered and organized into sections according to similarity in complexity and content.

It establishes a hierarchy in the form of concentric circles with three main factors that are visual-spatial ability, verbal ability and quantitative-numeric ability . From there, it establishes the level of closeness of the different tests with the G factor of intelligence, the central and hierarchically highest point.

5. Carroll’s strata model

This model divides cognitive abilities into three interrelated strata, the most specific being the first and the most general the third.

In the first of the layers, Carroll establishes the concrete abilities such as induction, visual memory, musical discrimination, writing or perceptive speed . These are a total of twenty specific factors necessary for the performance of various actions at both the mental and behavioural levels.

The second of the strata includes eight more general and extensive factors in which those of the previous stratum are included. They include fluid, crystallized intelligence, memory and learning, visual perception, auditory perception, resilience, cognitive speed and speed of processing.

Finally, the third layer refers to general intelligence, from which all the previous processes and capabilities are derived.

And a mixed model: Cattell and Horn’s model

Cattell’s model, in which he divided intelligence into fluid and crystallized intelligence, is widely known worldwide. However this model was later extended with the collaboration of John Horn , resulting in this collaboration in one of the hierarchical models or theories of intelligence.

In this model three levels can be observed. In the first order factors we find the primary skills (taken from Thurstone and Guilford), which are encompassed by the second order factors.

Finally, the third order factors are a historical fluid intelligence (from which secondary factors arise such as fluid intelligence as an element that allows the realisation of links between elements by means of induction or deduction , visual intelligence, the capacity for recovery and cognitive speed). In addition to this, together with historical fluid intelligence there is the common learning factor, which implies crystallised intelligence.

Bibliographic references:

  • Amor, P.J. and Sanchez-Elvira. A. (2005). Introduction to the study of individual differences. 2nd Edition. Sanz and Torres: Madrid.
  • Maureira, F. (2017). What is intelligence? Bubok Publishing S.L. Spain.