Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The lifetime burden of being labeled a gifted child

At the time, the new-fangled IQ test was gaining traction, after proving itself in World War One recruitment centres, and in 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman decided to use it to identify and study a group of gifted children. Combing California’s schools for the creme de la creme, he selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the “Termites”, and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day.

As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites’ average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman’s expectations – there were many who pursued more “humble” professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists. For this reason, Terman concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”. Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average.

As the Termites enter their dotage, the moral of their story – that intelligence does not equate to a better life – has been told again and again. At best, a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled.

That’s not to say that everyone with a high IQ is a tortured genius, as popular culture might suggest – but it is nevertheless puzzling. Why don’t the benefits of sharper intelligence pay off in the long term?

One possibility is that knowledge of your talents becomes something of a ball and chain. Indeed, during the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events in their 80-year lifespan. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported that they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations.
--David Robson, BBC, on the limits of IQ