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The intellectual and psychosocial nature of extreme giftedness

Gifted Resources

This article by Philip Powell and Tony Haden compares the differences of average, moderately and extremely gifted individuals. The authors explore the psychological difficulties of the highly gifted, especially in terms of self-esteem and self-conception. The article discusses the difficulties the extremely gifted have in obtaining consistent, accurate and valid feedback in regard to their self-concept. The information provided has implications for educators, parents, and psychologists.

Author: Powell, P. & Haden, T.
Publisher: Roeper Review
Volume: Volume 6, No. 3, pp. 131–133
Year: February 1984

The highly gifted create structure, generate ideas, and efficiently process information in ways that are qualitatively superior to moderately gifted and average ability individuals. Typically, adult academic and occupational achievements are also superior. Their advanced need to know tends to narrow their self-concept such that consistent, accurate, and valid feedback is more difficult to obtain. The net effect of this is a tendency toward low-self-esteem.

The highly gifted are rare in the population. Using IQ scores as a gross index to assess this rarity, those with IQ’s of 150 and above occur about 5-7 times out of 10,000 persons. The literature about them is also rare. Nevertheless, the attempt to understand the highly gifted is valuable because it can help us to help them achieve their potential. It has been reported that the higher the level of giftedness, the greater the chance of psychological and social adjustment difficulties.

To clarify the nature of the extreme giftedness, the intellectual performance of this group will be compared with the intellectual performance of the moderately gifted and the average person, using relevant research studies. From this comparison, characteristics of the intellectual performance of the highly gifted will be extracted, along with those of the moderately gifted and the average. These intellectual performance characteristics which define these three levels of mental ability are listed in a table which should be of practical value to parents, teacher, and to the highly gifted in particular.

Comparison of Average, Moderately Gifted and Highly Gifted
Terman and Oden, (1959) found that the four traits which distinguished the gifted from the control group of normal or average children most clearly were:

  • General intelligence
  • Desire to know
  • Originality
  • Common sense

Torrance (1965) has argued that the gifted are independent thinkers. Dunn and Price (1980) provided evidence to show that those of average ability have a greater need for external structure than the intellectually gifted. One important difference, then, between average persons and their gifted counterparts is in the need of externally imposed structure. Gifted persons are more likely to make sense out of their intellectual experiences than the average person.

Another important difference is in the desire to know complex ideas. Average persons have less desire to know ideas for their own sake. They substitute participation in social affairs for idea dominance or the preference for thinking and generating ideas argued as characteristic of the mentally gifted (Powell, 1982). The possession of the desire to know means that gifted individuals have a need to search for the inherent pattern, logic or meaning in a set of data information, while average people prefer to have the pattern, logic, or meaning already generated and explained.

The moderately gifted are the most researched because of their great numbers in the field. These individuals have a desire to know complex ideas and how to generate them which enables them to create their own structure out of information or data received (Dunn & Price, 1980). This ability to create structure is what enables the gifted to be independent thinkers (Torrance, 1965). In addition, it is this capacity to create structure, the desire to know, and an independence of thought which provide a greater efficiency in problem-solving strategies that is characteristic of the intellectually gifted (Sternberg, 1981).

The highly gifted, on the other hand, have the greatest capacity to create structure and organize data and the greatest need to know. At this extreme, such people can create whole disciplines (De Candolle) and/or frameworks for comprehending the universe (Newton and Einstein). These individuals are very efficient at problem-solving and problem finding. For instance, Hollingworth (1942) reported remarkable instances of problem-solving in the extremely gifted children she studied. One child applied for two patents before he was age eight. (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 60). Sternberg (1981) found that brighter members of the Stanford and Yale undergraduates, both gifted samples, were superior in organizing their time, because of highly efficient problem-solving techniques.

To give the reader a better feel for the differences in thinking among the three ability levels, imagine the three detectives from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: Inspector Lestrade, Dr.Watson and Sherlock Holmes himself. Analytical Inspector Lestrade would solve the case step by step with concrete evidence. Dr. Watson would appreciate clues which had obvious and non-obvious connections to one another and synthesize abstract clues. Sherlock Holmes would find and generate clues which he could hypothetically integrate to solve a crime. Holmes was an interesting mixture of brilliant analytical skills and synthetic ability which enabled him to perceive the minutest details, assign proper weight to each, and to integrate these into a large-scale picture of the entire situation. For us, Inspector Lestrade is of normal intellectual ability, Dr. Watson is of the moderately gifted level, and Holmes is extremely gifted.

Average people do not create their own intellectual structure and tend to reason in a step-by-step fashion. Thought skipping is not the cognitive style. Now, suppose the moderately gifted can integrate several steps of an argument into one giant step. This means that the moderately gifted can skip-think, which is a much more rapid and efficient way to solve (complex) problems, and we could say the moderately gifted are synthetic thinkers. Suppose further that the extremely gifted are superior to all other levels of intelligence in that they can be both analytic and synthetic thinkers. We can describe them as integrated thinkers to differentiate them from both moderately gifted and the average.

Normal Ability
Moderately Gifted
Extremely Gifted
Intellectual Traits
Need Structure,
Little desire to know, and
Inefficient information processing
Create own structure,
Desire to know, and
Efficient information processing
Create structure for culture at extreme,
High desire to know, and
Extremely efficient information processing
Type of Thinker
Analytical thinkers
Synthetic thinkers
Integrated thinkers
Approximate IQ
90 to 110
130 to 145-49
Adult Academic Achievement
High School graduation
Graduate school standing
Graduate-postgraduate standing
Adult Occupational Attainments
Blue collar worker
Professional and

The highly gifted person has the greatest capacity to create structure. This capacity, however, is not just directed towards making sense out of external data or information outside of the self; it is also directed toward comprehension of the self. If the activity of the self is defined by actual achievements and personal aspirations, then the application of the gifts to create structure upon personal aspirations can create serious problems. One of these is the generation of unrealistic aspirations.

Self-esteem and Self-conception
To explore the psychosocial difficulties of the highly gifted, two ideas borrowed from psychology are self-esteem (Coopersmith, 1967) and self-conception (Turner, cited in Gordon & Gergen, 1968). Self-esteem is the positive or negative feeling people develop toward themselves as a result of the perceived quality of their performance of personally valued roles. One way to understand self-esteem is to think of it as a result of a discrepancy between an ideal self we are striving to become and a real self which is what we are actually achieving. Self-conception is the concept of who one is, and an understanding of one’s values and aspirations.

Data on the self-esteem of the gifted are mixed. Some studies report a positive self-concept and normal self-esteem for the gifted (e.g., Tidwell, 1980), while others report the opposite (e.g., Trotter, 1971). One thing agreed upon by psychologists, however, is that the lower the self-esteem, the poorer the self-concept and the poorer the mental health (Coopersmith, 1967); and it is the highly gifted who have a great potential for being psychosocially injured by their own mental gifts (Hollingworth, 1942; Terman & Oden, 1959).

This potential for self-inflicted misery is evidenced by the difficulty the highly gifted have in developing a realistic ideal self (Powell, 1982). Specifically, a very superior ability to process and organize information, i.e. to create structure, may lead to the development of an overly demanding ideal self. The highly gifted person may understand better than anyone else what supreme achievements are and may develop an ideal self which no one else can achieve.

Notice the effects of generating an unattainable ideal self. Either nothing is accomplished, as was true of Sidis (Powell, 1982), or attempts are made to do something which is unachievable or even deadly to self or others such as Leopold and Loeb (Levin, 1956). Also, a low self-esteem and a poor self conception are often present because of the discrepancy between real self behavior and ideal self aspirations.

Another problem for the highly gifted is they grow up with and are often socialized by significant others who do not understand them well enough to guide their ideas and actions with valid feedback. This was true of Leopold and Loeb, who were given free rein to go and do as they pleased at an early age. Parents can also vacillate between being proud of and being scared of the achievements of the highly gifted child. Parental pride in achievement can quickly turn to a fear of social stigma which can cause parents to give their gifted child inconsistent feedback. Hence, highly gifted children are never quite sure if it is good or bad to be very bright. Thus, their concept of the value of being very gifted develops slowly and ambivalently.

Peers, especially children, are often confused by the highly gifted person because it is difficult to identify with their superior cognitive abilities. They may downplay the degree of superiority of the highly gifted by invalidating feedback. If this feedback is internalized, a self-conception may be constructed based on underrating the self. Clark (1979) reported on a young female student who had spent 18 years believing she was not intelligent because she asked more questions than the others in class. Later, in Clark’s university class, when the characteristics of the gifted were discussed, the woman was so moved that she decided to say that she identified with the gifted even though she knew she was not gifted. She was so stirred by the class that later that evening she called her parents. During a conversation with them, the woman student found out that she has a measured IQ of 165. School personnel had advised her parents not to discuss her extraordinary IQ with her. This resulted in a low level of academic seIf-esteem and the ridiculous self-conception of being stupid!

It can be threatening for teachers and administrators to know that a student has more information about a subject, and understands more than they do. They may respond by giving these students and their parents inaccurate information about cognitive abilities (Grost, 1970), by highlighting mistakes, and by insisting that learning occur in a particular fashion, usually lock-step. These teachers help to engender in the extremely gifted a self-concept based on a diminished view of true potential, all of which results in poor self-esteem.

Another reason why the highly gifted may have a poor self image is that they are often praised only for acting intellectual. This leads to an exaggeration of the ultimate value of intelligence and the belief that only by being smart can one be accepted. Thus, social skills, such as the ability to empathize with less able others or to engage in small talk, are developed slowly. This leads to an emotional distancing of the gifted from others as well as to an emotional distancing from their own emotional life.

Comparing the differences of average, moderately gifted and extremely gifted individuals has implications for educators, parents, and psychologists. One implication, not covered in this article is that these differences require different approaches to teaching and to parenting. For instance, we should teach the gifted how to generate their own knowledge because this meets their need to create structure and their desire to know. As parents, we need to teach them that there is always something to learn from somebody. Each of us, no matter how able, will meet others who can help us meet our needs.

Philip M. Powell is the Assistant Professor, Department of Education Psychology, and Tony Haden is the Graduate Assistant at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Powell is also Contributing Editor of this journal.



Clark, B. Growing up gifted, Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merrill, 1979.

Coopersmith, S. The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1967.

Dunn, R.S., & Price, G. E. The learning style characteristics of gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1980, 24 (1), 33-36.

Feldman, D. The mysterious case of extreme giftedness. In the gifted and talented edited by A.H. Passow. Chicago: NSSE, University of Chicago, 1979.

Grost, A. Genius in residence. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Hollingworth, L. Children above 180 IQ Stanford Binet. Yonkers, New York: World Book Company, 1942.

Lajoie, S., & Shore, B. Three myths? The overrepresentation of the gifted among dropouts, delinquents, and suicides. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1981, 25 (3), 138-143.

Levin, M. Compulsion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Powell, P.M. Elementary education, personal adjustment and social achievement in a national sample of gifted adults. In Gifted children: Reaching their potential, edited by James Gallagher Jerusalem: Kollack & Sons, 1979. Republished by Trillium Press.

Schauer, G.H. Emotional disturbance and giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1976, 20 (4), 470-477.

Sternberg, R.J. A componential theory of intellectual giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1981, 25(2), 86-93.

Terman, L.M., & Oden, M. The gifted group at midlife. Vol. V: Genetic studies of genius. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Tidwell, R.A. Psycho-educational profile of 1593 gifted high school students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1980, 24(2), 63-68.

Torrance, E.P. Gifted children in the classroom. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Trotter, R. J. Self-image. Science News, 1971, 100, 130-131.

Turner, R.H. The self-conception in social interaction, In The self in social interaction (Vol. 1). New York: John-Wiley & Sons, 1968.

Walberg, H.J. et al. Childhood traits and environmental conditions of highly eminent adults. Gifted Child Quarterly, 1981, 25(3), 103-107.


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Gek Lee Stevens

This was a hopeful article to read by elderly parents of a child with an IQ of 142 (8 yrs old) and now a 46 year old adult man. We were in the camp of those parents whose first brush with the high IQ (education community-Country Day) was extremely negative. We decided to keep him "normal" and hence, missed out on all the right ways to nurture his "gifts". Now were in a relational crisis with our adult son and looking for a knowledgeable and experienced professional to help us navigate our emotional journey to help him find a more satisfying way forward and to help us not castigate ourselves for "missing the boat" on this important part of parenting that we didn't succeed in. I brought cultural baggage to my role as mother from my own working class roots in Asia.

Verity J

My father told my brother, but never me, that I was highly gifted. Reading this article was very illuminating for me as I reflect on my own upbringing, bereft of social emotional wellness.

As a Teaching Artist today, my motivation in facilitation is to aid youth development, to give an opportunity to develop new skills to take away for new avenues of their continued self-exploration through doing, in other words experiential learning. Social Emotional Learning is also an important element of my practice as it’s clearly evident that youth of differing abilities have self-esteem issues and social skills, not necessarily correlated with obvious intellectual advancement. I can’t parent, but I can give them a place to safely explore new things to do, to perhaps reframe ideas about self, and new ways they can continue to nurture themselves on their own.

D. W.

Yes! Absolutely yes! I think so many gifted adults diagnosed at a later age can relate to this. I know I wasn't given my test results until this year and I'm 30. It's hard to understand that I knew college level information in third grade and never communicated this. I am also a person of color in the south so teachers discounted my intelligence all the time. Being gifted isn't easy.

Mary Lou brandes

I need to interact.

Aliyu ali hussaini

Thanks for sharing this knowledge to us

Robert Evans

"As parents, we need to teach them that there is always something to learn from somebody."

At a prior job I was using a restroom I usually don't use and was stuck by the dispenser not dispensing paper towels. A guy showed me the trick to get it to dispense and I thanked him. From what I could tell he was with the group of people who are mentally handicapped (there was a program with my workplace and their facility that got them jobs there). So this is a possible 4+ SD gap between me and the person who taught me how to use a device.

I've been in a lot of jobs in my early years and frequently learned from people of average or below average IQ. Crystallized intelligence, familiarity, whatever you want to call it, is important.

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