8/10/2009

Why do gifted people seem so weird?: It might not be what you think

I once asked one of my friends, who was labeled gifted and went to a school for gifted students for a few years, why gifted people were so "weird." He gave me what I will call the "orthodox theory of giftedness." I call it this because it's an unquestioned assumption thrown around by many members of the gifted community. I don't think it's necessarily a bad assumption, but I do want to question it.

The theory goes as follows:
There are a number of traits associated with giftedness whose connection with intelligence seems tenuous, at best: creativity, great emotional depth and intensity, keener senses, unusual sense of humor, unusual and almost obsessive interests, etc. These are the traits that make gifted people seem weird. And all of these traits stem from a higher-than-average intelligence.
In other words, gifted people come off as "weird" because they think differently and they think differently because they're smarter.

But why would having a higher IQ necessarily make one think differently? It might, if higher IQ reflects greater problem-solving ability, greater ability to see abstract relationships, or other cognitive skills that are qualitatively different. But high IQ might reflect a quantitative rather than qualitative difference. Maybe gifted people just have "higher processing power:" they think in the same way everyone else does, but they do it faster and more efficiently. Maybe their brains do the same things everyone else's brains do, only better. In which case, being gifted wouldn't make you act "weird." It would just make you better at a debatably wide range of intellectual tasks (depending on whether you subscribe to a general intelligence theory or a multiple intelligences view). It would not produce the divergent thinking and greater intensity and sensitivity many gifted people exhibit.

My experience with gifted people leads me to believe that high IQ reflects both a quantitative and a qualitative difference. Gifted people have more processing power, but they also process things differently. I don't know if one causes the other. Maybe they process things differently because they have more processing power or--more likely, in my view--they can process better because they process differently.

I don't think I agree with the orthodox theory, but at the very least, we need more evidence before we adopt it wholesale. I doubt we should completely dismantle the orthodox theory, but I do think it needs to be questioned and tested--expecially by advocates for the gifted.

18 comments:

  1. I've noticed that gifted people like to stick together, and are not fond with mingle with non-gifted and vice versa.

    Gifted people seem to talk differently, linguistically speaking.

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    1. Like attracts like. People naturally appreciate finding common ground with others. If who they are can resonate with who another person is and they can establish a healthy, respectful connection, they will be friends.

      With gifted individuals, the pool of friends that they can genuinely resonate with in the world is drained dramatically. They can feel very self-conscious, sensitive, shamed, and hurt when others misunderstand them.

      All things considered, all people can establish friendship with caring, respect, understanding, honesty, integrity, accountability, valuing, and reciprocating. It's just harder for gifted individuals who have to discipline their selves more strongly to fit in, like smashing a puzzle piece into a puzzle that it doesn't belong to but making it work anyway.

      They have to make great efforts to hone their empathy, actively learn about communication, and change their colors (like a chameleon) for different people and different situations. They may have many friends and acquaintances, but be close to a chosen few.

      It's not a bad thing. Nobody is a bad guy or a good guy. Nobody is better or worse off. It's just a matter of having differences which are reconcilable and manageable.

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    2. Thanks for the thoughtful commnent, Emma. I hope to keep hearing from you!

      I can definitely relate to having to focus extra on communicating with others to make up for being different. I guess that's one reason you can't judge the social abilities of someone highly different from the norm by whether they're popular. Better to see if they can understand and demonstrate caring for the people around them.

      When I was a kid, the messages I got were either "fit in and be like everyone else" or "you're great the way you are, don't change for other people." I wish I'd met someone like you, who understands that everyone adjusts their behavior to the people around them, it's the considerate thing to do, and you can do that in small ways without giving up who you are.

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    3. It seems to me that lots have some form of autism honestly

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  2. Good point. I guess it's easier for people to talk to others who think more like them.

    I've noticed that, too. What, specifically, have you observed? Let's compare notes! :)

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  3. who do you think you are obserbing people like me and talking and treating us like interestig animals of another species!!!!!!!

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  4. you people are jerks to gifted people
    2+2=5
    how do you like me now
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  5. Hi Nathan! Sorry to upset you, but you seem to have misunderstood my post.

    1) "People like you" is also people like me. I was id'ed as gifted at age 4 and went to a school for gifted kids for 3 years. This was back in middle school and I'm still in touch with my friends from there.

    2) I don't think gifted people are weird. I think we seem weird to others because we differ from the norm in ways that are qualitative (like a personality trait or a way of experiencing the world) not just quantitative (like IQ). That was the entire point of the post, actually. Guess I didn't make it clearly enough.

    3) I am talking in a scientific tone because I am a scientist-in-training. I could certainly write all sorts of personal posts about what *I* think being gifted is all about based on my personal experience. However, that's not what this blog is about, and to be honest, there are enough people doing that already.

    If you still have any questions let me know.

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  6. Hi Emily -

    I disagree with a couple of your major premises. The first of them, simply put, is how you are approaching the concept of weird. Weird is that quality which others find "of strange or extraordinary character." The exact reason that you think gifted people are not actually weird is why they would/could/might be.

    I also disagree with the notion that "the gifted" are perceived as weird or not weird, because many among the gifted have never been perceived as weird and find it weird to think that they would be.

    Speed has often been cause for a gifted person to be seen as weird. (Check out Willie the Wizard.) So, too, has divergent thinking and the combination of the two, as well. Not all gifted folks are fast thinkers at all, though I know that is a common perception and even, for some people, a part of some definitions.

    Finally... I think the evidence on this one is in and has been for more than a little while. Perhaps part of the problem lies with solely defining giftedness by IQ scores and the like. Gifted pianists may or may not score brilliantly on an IQ test, let alone actors, painters, counselors, etc.

    Some of it, though, lies in the apparent frequency of non-linear people within the gifted population. For example, the majority of people do not leap to conclusions based on insufficient data with nearly the combination of frequency and accuracy that we see with some sections of the gifted population - the intuitives. It makes the more linear folks quite uncomfortable. So, too, other such variations on the theme.

    Happy to discuss this further - I saw your blog linked and figured to share reactions. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, even if I disagree!

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    1. Hi, thank you so much for commenting. You make a lot of good points.

      You're right, someone could seem weird to other people for any number of reasons.

      Someone could seem weird because they think qualitatively differently (like the intuitive people you mention). Someone could also seem weird just because they think faster and more accurately than most people, though not necessarily in a different way (like Willie the Wizard, perhaps?). I guess I'd underestimated the degree to which someone could seem "weird" because of their thinking speed, having gone to school with many people who thought quickly, got good grades, and had excellent working and long-term memories, but did not necessarily demonstrate unusual creativity, passionate interest in learning, divergent thinking, logical ability, or even comprehension of what they were learning.

      Thank you for pointing out intuitive thinkers--this was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind! I actually come up with all of my ideas in this way, by an associative leap, and then later have to go back and put together a linear argument for them. This made writing philosophy papers in college rather...time-consuming. ;)

      Sorry, but I don't entirely understand where the disagreement is? I wrote this post because I was sick of hearing people say that gifted people are different, and seem weird, just because they think faster and more accurately--I think there are qualitative differences in thinking as well. You seem to be saying that speed *can* be enough but that many gifted people also differ qualitatively, such as in people who think more nonlinearly and intuitively. You also mention that there are many different kinds of gifted people, depending on whether they're identified by IQ tests primarily or some other factor, like a specific talent in music, art, etc. I definitely agree with you about that!

      I guess one difference is I tend to conceptualize giftedness as a cluster of traits that people with talent in any area can have, so I don't generally think of a talented musician/actor/baseball player as gifted just because they have a specific talent. Thanks for correcting me on that!

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  7. Emily -

    I *thought* I posted a lengthy comment, but right now it is not visible to me. So, I am going to briefly comment, but if the longer never appears and you are so inclined, let me know and I will share the longer version again!

    There are wildly different gifted folks within any culture and no common element among them other than their divergence from the ostensible norm.

    That divergence is the definition of weird. It includes speed as an element of weirdness.

    And I think there is a ton of evidence.

    Thank you for your post! (If the other one exists, delete this one, please?!)

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    1. Sorry, I have post approval set up so your other comment didn't appear right away.

      Even with all the diversity between gifted folks in a particular culture identified for so many different reasons--you don't think there are any traits that occur frequently in them and much more rarely in the general population?

      If so, that's quite a bold claim! I'd love to hear more about the evidence you've mentioned. :)

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  8. Yeah, I have to agree with you that we gifted people are probably the weirdest people you'll ever meet. It mostly because we are dubbed gifted because we are different from the mainstreams. So, imagine spending your school days with everyone who understands you more than the mainstreams. That's what being in a gifted program feels like. We can really express our uniqueness and we're not afraid to do so, and that makes us pretty weird. It also gets a but tough when gifted people are the only ones who like you. Once you fall into the void and you spend a few years in the gifted program, befriending mainstream kids get pretty tough.

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  9. What is weird? Who says what 'weird' is? Anyone can act 'weird', just by prospection of other people. In psychology they say, "10 different people, 10 different opinions." And also, people can get passed there 'weird' thinking of others. People just have to be willing to look at other factors, even unknown factors in the other persons life. (The Johari window)

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  10. At age 54 I was tested after years of psychoanalysis because of struggles that I continued to have. Turns out I am a candidate for the twice-exceptional label - and have never really considered myself as "gifted", only different. But my life has generally been spent hiding my differences, at both ends, so I just generally seemed "normal" - whatever that is.

    I wouldn't want to be in a support group of "gifteds" or even "twice-exceptional" unless the goals were practical.

    Yes, I still feel very alone and rarely meet what I consider a like-minded person. But being gifted doesn't make you like-minded to me, which is why labels are so dangerous.

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  11. I should add that I am now 62, it took me years to leave the psychoanalytic relationship that I realized was not being of any real help (after 20 years). I have a new therapist (after trying 2 others) and I still have a difficult time with trust that therapists' goal is to "normalize" me.

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  12. I'm gifted. I take weird as a compliment. Honestly, I met another gifted kid just like me and he is weird all of the time! He actually taught me to accept myself. You people can be all sciency if you want, but remember we are people too.

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