Intellectual giftedness is a fascinating construct. But it is also a topic about which empirical evidence and public beliefs widely diverge. Popular media such as movies, the internet, and books tend to portray gifted persons as having exceptional intellectual abilities but obvious deficits in their social-emotional skills and behavioral problems. These characters bolster the “disharmony hypothesis,” which suggests that giftedness is associated with deficiencies in psychosocial adjustment and mental health.
The disharmony hypothesis is the dominant perception of giftedness among the general public. It is exemplified by such fictional characters as Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC series and the main character of “Good Will Hunting,” portrayed by Matt Damon.
Book shelves and magazines are filled with advice on how to handle intellectually gifted children, who are often described as being radically different from average children, particularly in terms of their emotional functioning and social behavior.
“The ‘disharmony hypothesis’ suggests that giftedness is associated with deficiencies in psychosocial adjustment and mental health.”
Empirical research, however, indicates that gifted children are not all that different from their peers. While the definition of intellectual giftedness may vary, many researchers agree that the difference between gifted and non-gifted children is quantitative rather than qualitative. Intellectually gifted persons have substantially above-average intellectual ability and are better or more efficient at learning — but they do not rely on entirely different processes when learning or solving problems.
Moreover, considerable empirical evidence argues against the disharmony hypothesis. A review concluded that the average intellectually gifted student is better adjusted, displays fewer behavioral issues, and is less prone to anxiety, depression, and other internalizing disorders than the average non-gifted student. This is in keeping with the fact that a high level of cognitive ability is generally a protective rather than a risk factor for developmental problems.
“High level of cognitive ability is generally a protective rather than a risk factor for developmental problems.”
This discrepancy between evidence-based conclusions and widespread misconceptions about intellectual giftedness is particularly relevant for teachers, as they play a crucial role in both identifying and supporting intellectually gifted students in school. Disseminating evidence-based findings about intellectual giftedness to prospective teachers as well as the general public remains an important task for researchers in the field.