The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Giftedness Doesn't Guarantee Creative Achievement

What makes a person creative?

There is a dirty little secret that you will never hear from educators involved in programs for the "gifted." These intellectually precocious youngsters generally go on to lead lives that are, well, boring.

Because high intelligence is required for great accomplishment, one might imagine that giving gifted children every opportunity would be a sure-fire way to increase the level of creative accomplishment in our society, thereby making all of us a lot better off.

Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple. To begin with, some of the most creative people in the world are not all that bright in terms of being capable of scoring high on IQ tests. High Iq may be necessary for creativity but it is not sufficient.  No one who met the young Charles Darwin was bowled over by his towering intellect, for example and his early academic career was quite mediocre, even for someone tentatively planning to enter the clergy.

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Science is admittedly a dull plodding business in which the 99 percent perspiration often drowns out the 1 percent inspiration, the eureka moments. Yet, some of the world's most highly creative people in the arts were far from intellectual giants.

Mozart had a lifelong fondness for garish costumes and the grossest of bathroom humor. In the movie Amadeus, he was depicted as giddy and immature. His defenders refuse to admit that the one of the most accomplished composers who ever lived could have had a trivial intellect.  But people with Williams syndrome may have incredible musical facility and still be intellectually incapable of tying their shoes.

So much for great scientists and great composers! Other creative fields have their share of high achievers with room-temperature IQ scores. Vincent Van Gogh whose paintings now auction for tens of millions of dollars was considered dumb as a post by those who knew him. His neighbors even took to calling him The Caveman.

If intelligence were the key to creative accomplishment, one would expect young people who excel in their academic careers to be highly creative as adults. The evidence on this question is mixed. One pioneering study on a group of academically gifted young people, known as the "Termites," found little evidence of superior creativity in adult life (1,2) although the group was highly successful in the more prosaic sense of earning lots of money.

More recent research suggests that the very highest Scholastic Aptitude Test achievers (in the top quartile of the top 1 %) are both more creative and more occupationally successful in later life compared to the lowest quartile for that elite group (3). The fact that such rarefied comparisons were required speaks volumes about how difficult it is to show that people who are intellectually gifted are also more creative.

Why is there so little of a connection between IQ scores and creative accomplishment? One possible reason is that gifted people are emotionally unstable. As English poet John Dryden phrased it: "Great wits are sure to madness near allied," where by wit he meant intelligence. Yet, this explanation is not really consistent with evidence that very high IQ people are economically successful.

Another explanation is more intriguing. According to this perspective, creative accomplishment is not just a matter of having a creative personality but leading the life of a creative person. This is not merely a case of living in creative places at creative times, e.g., Italy during the Renaissance, but experiencing a personal history conducive to unusual creativity as well.

Unfortunately, if you want to write like Charles Dickens, you need a Dickensian childhood, which is to say exposure to all manner of difficulties and indignities, such as seeing one's father cast in a debtor's jail and getting thrown out of one's home for failure to pay the rent. This is not to say that creative people are themselves emotionally fragile.  Rather their creativity helps them to survive trauma.

The biographies of highly creative people are replete with tragedy such as the early loss of a parent. Coping with such harrowing events, and worse, is the furnace in which creative people are forged. Evidently it is in coping with the emotional conflicts of childhood that artists develop their creative muscles, so to speak.

That is why so many gifted children fail to deliver creative accomplishment. Their lives are just too easy.

Sources
1. Subotnik, R. F., and Arnold, K. D. (1994). Longitudinal study of giftedness and talent. In R. F. Subotnik and K. D. Arnold, (Eds.), Beyond Terman: Contemporary longitudinal studies of giftedness and talent (pp. 1-23). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
2. Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1959). The gifted group at mid-life, thirty-five years follow-up of the superior child. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
3. Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. (2005). Creativity and occupational accomplishments among intellectually precocious youths: An age 13 to age 33 longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 484-492.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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