Isolation is one of the main challenges faced by gifted individuals, especially those with no social network of gifted peers. In order to gain popularity, gifted children will often try to hide their abilities to win social approval. Strategies include underachievement (discussed below) and the use of less sophisticated vocabulary when among same-age peers than when among family members or other trusted individuals.
The isolation experienced by gifted individuals may not be caused by giftedness itself, but by society’s response to giftedness. Plucker and Levy have noted that, “in this culture, there appears to be a great pressure for people to be ‘normal’ with a considerable stigmaassociated with giftedness or talent.” To counteract this problem, gifted education professionals recommend creating a peer group based on common interests and abilities. The earlier this occurs, the more effective it is likely to be in preventing isolation.
Perfectionism is another issue for gifted individuals. It is encouraged by the fact that gifted individuals tend to be easily successful in much of what they do.
Healthy perfectionism refers to having high standards, a desire to achieve, conscientiousness, or high levels of responsibility. It is likely to be a virtue rather than a problem, even if gifted children may have difficulty with healthy perfectionism because they set standards that would be appropriate to their mental age (the level at which they think), but they cannot always meet them because they are bound to a younger body, or the social environment is restrictive. In such cases, outsiders may call some behavior perfectionism, while for the gifted this may be their standard.
“Perfectionism becomes desirable when it stimulates the healthy pursuit of excellence.”
Unhealthy perfectionism stems from equating one’s worth as a human being to one’s achievements, and the simultaneous belief that any work less than perfect is unacceptable and will lead to criticism. Because perfection in the majority of human activities is neither desirable, nor possible, this cognitive distortion creates self-doubt, performance anxiety and ultimately procrastination.
The unhealthy perfectionism can be triggered or further exaggerated by parents, siblings, school comrades with good or ill intentions. Parents are usually proud and will praise extensively the gifted child, on the other hand siblings, comrades and school bullies will generally become jealous of the intellectual ease of the gifted child and tease him or her about any minor imperfection in his work, strength, clothes, appearance, or behavior. Either approach—positive reinforcement from parents, or negative reactions from siblings and comrades for minor flaws—will push these kids into considering their worth to their peers as equal to their abilities and consider any imperfection as a serious defect in themselves. The unhealthy perfectionism can be further exaggerated when the child counter-attacks those who mocked him with their own weapons, i.e. their lower abilities, thus creating disdain in himself for low or even average performance.
There are many theories that try to explain the correlation between perfectionism and giftedness. Perfectionism becomes a problem as it frustrates and inhibits achievements.
D. E. Hamachek identified six specific, overlapping types of behavior associated with perfectionism. They include:
- A nagging “I should” feeling
- Shame and guilt feelings
- Face-saving behavior
- Shyness and procrastination
There is often a stark gap between the abilities of the gifted individual and his or her actual accomplishments. Many gifted students will perform extremely well on standardized or reasoning tests, only to fail a class exam. This disparity can result from various factors, such as loss of interest in too-easy classes or negative social consequences of being perceived as smart. Underachievement can also result from emotional or psychological factors, including depression, anxiety, perfectionism, or self-sabotage.
An often overlooked contributor to underachievement is undiagnosed learning differences. A gifted individual is less likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder than a non gifted classmate, as the gifted child can more readily compensate for his/her paucities. This masking effect is dealt with by understanding that a difference of one standard deviation between scores constitutes a learning disability even if all of the scores are above average. In addition, many gifted children may underachieve because they have grown to believe that because of their intelligence, things should always come easily to them, and thus may lag behind their non-gifted peers in the work ethic required to learn things that don’t come immediately to them. One apparently effective way to attempt to reverse underachievement in gifted children includes educating teachers to provide enrichment projects based on students’ strengths and interests without attracting negative attention from peers.
It has been thought in the past that there is a correlation between giftedness and depression or suicide. This has generally not been proven. As Reis and Renzulli mention,
“With the exception of creatively gifted adolescents who are talented in writing or the visual arts, studies do not confirm that gifted individuals manifest significantly higher or lower rates or severity of depression than those for the general population…Gifted children’s advanced cognitive abilities, social isolation, sensitivity, and uneven development may cause them to face some challenging social and emotional issues, but their problem-solving abilities, advanced social skills, moral reasoning, out-of-school interests, and satisfaction in achievement may help them to be more resilient.”
Also, no research points to suicide rates being higher in gifted adolescents than other adolescents. However, a number of people have noted a higher incidence of existential depression, which is depression due to seemingly highly abstract concerns such as the finality of death, the ultimate unimportance of individual people, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. Gifted individuals are also more likely to feel existential anxiety.
However, numerous studies have shown that an active depressive state impairs cognition because it retards neurogenesis in the hippocampus,
Researchers have discovered the less you use your brain’s frontal lobes, the more you see yourself through rose-colored glasses.
“In healthy people, the more you activate a portion of your frontal lobes, the more accurate your view of yourself is,” says Jennifer Beer, a University of Texas assistant professor of psychology.
“And the more you view yourself as desirable or better than your peers, the less you use those lobes.”
Students cheat in school. In other shocking news, the sky is blue and the sun rises in the east. There’s more to cheating than the fact that it happens, though; here’s an interesting blog post that describes current trends in cheating.
A new study by Zoë Chance, Michael I. Norton, Francesca Ginob, and Dan Ariely investigated how people interpret their own cheating. They compared two groups. Participants in the control group:
- Took a test.
- Made a prediction about how they’d do on a second test.
- Took a second test.
Participants in the “cheating” group did the same, but during the first test, the answers were printed at the bottom of the test.
- Took a test on which they could cheat
- Made a prediction about how they’d do on a second test.
- Took a second test.
The cheating group did better on the test 1 because they looked at the answers. In other words, they cheated. The groups did equally well on test 2 because neither group could cheat.
What’s interesting is the predictions. Both groups knew they wouldn’t be able to cheat on test 2, which used different questions than test 1. You would think the cheating group would predict that they wouldn’t do as well on test 2 as they had on test 1 because they wouldn’t be able to cheat. They should probably predict they’d do no better on test 2 than the control group. But that’s not what happened.
The cheating group’s predictions were significantly higher than were the control group’s. In other words, getting answers right by cheating made people think they were smart. The authors put it this way:
We find that those who exploit opportunities to cheat on tests are likely to engage in self-deception, inferring that their elevated performance is a sign of intelligence. This short-term psychological benefit of self-deception, however, can come with longer-term costs: when predicting future performance, participants expect to perform equally well—a lack of awareness that persists even when these inflated expectations prove costly.
These results add to ample evidence that people are adept at deceiving themselves.
The results also fit with an important bias in how people make predictions about future tests. In a nutshell, we make predictions about future tests based on our current memory state. What’s going to happen in the future doesn’t necessarily come into the prediction equation at all. And this can produce crazy results.
One of my favorite examples is when a test will take place. People predict they’ll do equally well on a test whether it will be in 10 minutes or a week (or even a year)! This bias can produce huge amounts of long-term overconfidence.
This stability bias can also help explain why people think they’ll do better after cheating. They make judgments based on how they just did on the test. They don’t take into account what will be different about the test in the future. So they don’t take into account whether or not they’ll be able to cheat.
Unskilled people tend to rate their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is. They make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their mistakes: they suffer from illusory superiority. On the other hand, the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.
This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is about paradoxical defects in cognitive ability, in oneself and others.
It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression. Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously. Sometimes this existential depression is tied into the positive disintegration experience referred to by Dabrowski (1996).
Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or “ultimate concerns”)—death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?
Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.
Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person’s life make?