Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

The Power and Perils of Being Born 'Gifted'

Genetics can provide an incredible platform for success, but not alone.

A close friend's son was recently evaluated for the gifted program at his elementary school and tested out with an astounding 150 IQ and 99th percentile rankings for every subject category. The future possibilities for this young genius are virtually limitless. Any parent would feel good knowing that their child has a genetic advantage as he or she enters a tough world that doesn't offer many do-overs. (I speak, by the way, also as a father of a gifted child, and I've learned many lessons the hard way, all of which are alluded to in the paragraphs that follow.)

The flip side is that genetic advantages don't guarantee success, and in some cases they may even undermine it.  We've all seen examples of incredible talent wasted—of the kid who was told from an early age how smart, athletic, artistic, etc. she is, but never develops those abilities beyond a basic level.  According to everyone around these kids, they were destined for greatness, but eventually they learned—often too late—that destiny is overrated.  

What went wrong for these would-be world changers? Social psychology research offers a few possibilities. The most obvious is that knowledge of their genetic prowess feeds a sense of entitlement. "If I am the best, then I should get the best." We rely so heavily on numbers and rankings in this culture that it's easy for anyone, especially kids, to get sucked into thinking that a lofty percentile assures success.  

But even in cases where entitlement doesn't overwhelm its host, it's possible for parents and teachers to damage a child's potential by expecting that he'll do well no matter how good or bad his education and training. The fallacy of thinking that genetics trump environmental influence is worse than negligent, it's dangerous, and it leaves thousands of kids in the dust every year. Psychologist Richard Nisbett has done a great deal of work in this area and has found compelling evidence that, if anything, environmental influence plays a much larger role in fostering success than the hardware we're born with. (His book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count on this topic is well worth checking out.)    

Expectations cut both ways, of course, and it's also likely that excessively high expectations from parents will fuel eventual burn out. When a child is told that because she has so much potential, nothing less than perfection will be tolerated, bad things are surely in the offing. If genetic advantage ruled out the possibility of failure, it would be a natural-born curse. Failure is vital to learning; without it success isn't even a remote possibility. None of us encourage failure, but neither should we pretend that being above average inoculates one from having to experience it.

When parents infect their kids' worldview with the perfection virus, what they're really doing is creating an excuse for lack of achievement. When the kid fails, as no doubt he will, the implicit takeaway is "I'm not good enough." And by the standard set by his parents, he's right—but what he's not realizing is that by his parents' standard, no one else is good enough either. When "I'm not good enough" becomes a running script in the child's mind, it will frame his perspective well into adulthood and perhaps his entire life. It's easier to disbelieve the lies others are telling you than it is to disbelieve the one you keep telling yourself. 

When the right elements come together and an exceptionally talented child is provided with solid training and realistic expectations, amazing things can happen. But great things can also come from children without edge-of-the-bell-curve genetics. That's an important point to remember as we march headlong into an age when genetic manipulation is no longer science fiction.

I'll conclude with reference to the futuristic movie Gattaca, set in a time when the new underclass is made up of people whose parents couldn't afford to have their kids genetically optimized. Everyone is rated based on their genetically endowed abilities, and those in the lower ranks are disallowed from trying to achieve anything above their rank. Vincent, the main character played by Ethan Hawke, is an average man who dreams of becoming an astronaut—a profession reserved for only the very best-and devises a plan to achieve his dream. His brother, Anton, is a genetically optimized police detective who uncovers Vincent's plan and sets out to stop him.

In a climactic scene near the movie's end, Vincent and Anton face each other on a beach at night. In a showdown of genetic ability versus raw desire, they race each other through the rough surf. Anton should be able to easily beat his average brother, yet he finds that he simply cannot win. In fact, he has to rely on Vincent to save him before he drowns. Disbelieving, he asks, "How are you able to do this?" (referring not only to Vincent winning the race, but also achieving his dream of becoming an astronaut).    

Vincent responds, "You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back."

In the end, whether one is genetically gifted or perfectly average, nothing can replace direction and desire.

Copyright 2011, David DiSalvo

www.daviddisalvo.org

 

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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