The Truth About the "Termites"

What do the results of Lewis Terman's famous study really demonstrate?

Posted Sep 09, 2009


 the early part of the 20th century, psychologist Lewis Terman set out to dispel the "early ripe-early rot myth". Terman believed that knowing a person's IQ was all that was necessary to predict his or her life success, and that such potential could be measured early in life. So he had teachers nominate children they thought were intelligent and he then gave an IQ test to these children to determine his elite group of high-IQ individuals.

His final group of "Termites" averaged a whopping IQ of 151. Following-up his group 35-years later, his gifted group at mid-life definitely seemed to conform to his expectations. They were taller, healthier, physically better developed, and socially adept (dispelling the myth at the time of high-IQ awkward nerds). As described in his 35-year followup, his group had an impressive array of accomplishments: Of just the gifted males (Terman's initial group consisted of 857 males), 70 earned listings in American Men of Science, and 3 were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Ten had entries in the Directory of American Scholars, and 31 appeared in Who's Who in America. The list goes on. To drive in his point, Terman summarizes the accomplishments of his elite group as follow:

"Nearly 2000 scientific and technical papers and articles and some 60 books and monographs in the sciences, literature, arts, and humanities have been published. Patents granted amount to at least 230. Other writings include 33 novels, about 375 short stories, novelettes, and plays; 60 or more essays, critiques, and sketches; and 265 miscellaneous articles on a variety of subjects. The figures on publications do not include the hundreds of publications by journalists that classify as news stories, editorials, or newspaper columns, nor do they include the hundreds, if not thousands, of radio, television, or motion picture scripts."

Is this impressive? Certainly. Is there more to this story than meets the eye? Absolutely. William Shockley was among the elementary school children tested by Terman's researchers in the 20s. His IQ was not high enough to be a "Termite", so he was shut out of the experiment and was not deemed "gifted". Undismayed, Shockley went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. He joined Bell Telephone Laboratories, and helped devised the point-contact transistor in 1947 and the junction transistor in 1948. This latter accomplishment earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970. Later as a professor, as he dusted his prize in his office at Stanford University, he looked at the list of accomplishments by the "Termites" and realized that not one of them held the trophy that was now in his possession.

A lot of people know about Terman's study, but don't know the truth about it. It was recently estimated that while the list of accomplishments by the Termites was undoubtedly impressive, they did not come close in caliber to the true scientific elite of the same nation and era. In Greatness: Who Makes History and Why, Dean Simonton explains:

"Let us give Terman the benefit of the doubt and post that all 2,000 scientific and technical publications were produced by the 70 who made it into American Men of Science. That implies that, on average, Terman's notable scientists produced about 29 publications by the time they had reached their mid-40s. In contrast, American Nobel laureates in the sciences averaged about 38 publications by the time they were 39 years old, and claimed about 59 publications by their mid-40s. THat amounts to a twofold disparity in output. Hence, Terman's intellectual elite was not of the same caliber as the true scientific elite of the same nation and era."

Another analysis shows that the accomplishments of the "Termites" could have been predicted on their socioeconomic status alone. These were mostly white, middle to upper middle class men with opportunities and resources for success. Some argue that it wasn't even necessary for Terman to analyze the IQ dimension--he could have stopped with SES and call it a day.

It's also noteworthy that very few minorities were in his sample (to be precise, he included 4 Japanese students, 1 black child, 1 Indian child, and 1 Mexican child in a total sample of 168,000), and teachers at the time (I would hope things are better today) undoubtedly had a bias toward identifying white students with talent. Which means many qualified students weren't even given the chance to take Terman's test. Terman did note that certain minority groups, in particular the Italian, Portogeuse, and Mexican in California at the time tended to have low IQs. But as to the cause, Terman had this to say:

"How much of this inferiority is due to the language handicap and to other environmental factors it is impossible to say, but the relative good showing made by certain other immigrant groups similarly handicapped would suggest that the true causes lie deeper than environment."

I'll leave it to you to surmise what he meant by "deeper" in this context.

Even more telling is a recent study conducted by Margaret Kern and Howard Friedman at the University of California at Riverside. They gathered follow-up data from the Terman Life Cycle Study, which included 1,023 participants. They wanted to know how predictive age at first reading and age at school entry was. What they found blew my mind. While early reading was associated with academic success, it was less associated with lifelong educational attainment and was hardly related to midlife adjustment at all. Early school entry was associated with less educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment, and even an increased mortality risk! The authors conclude: "The findings also highlight the complex issues regarding school entry and readiness. Lifespan approaches to these multifaceted issues will help us better understand the full ramifications of these important early-life developmental milestones."

My point isn't that Terman was wrong and IQ doesn't matter. That issue is best saved for later blog posts. My point is that much of Terman's interpretation of his data was shaped by his pre-existing beliefs and his determination to prove that precocity matters and that IQ is synonymous with genius. In fact, Terman equated giftedness with high IQ and expressed the view on many occasions that from high-IQ children "and nowhere else, our geniuses in every line are recruited." He created a classification scheme in which students with an IQ score above 135 are labeled "moderately gifted", above 150 as "exceptionally gifted", and above 180 as "severely and/or profoundly gifted". And in the education manuals Terman wrote: "Teachers should be better trained in detecting the signs of superior ability. Every child who consistently gets high marks in his school work with apparent ease should be given a mental examination, and if his intelligence level warrants it he should either be given extra promotions, or placed in a special class for superior children where faster progress can be made."

Terman's thinking about giftedness has had a profound effect on gifted education in the United States and continues to have an impact. While I certainly think he's done a lot of good for the field of gifted education, I also think his work deserves some reflection since so much is at stake for so many children.

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved 


Terman, L. (1925, 1947, 1959). Genetic Studies of Genius.

Terman, L. (1959). The Gifted Group at Mid-Life: Thirty-five Years Follow-up of the Superior Child. Stanford University Press.

Kern, M.L., & Friedman, H.S. (2008). Early educational milestones as predictors of lifelong academic achievement, midlife adjustment, and longevity. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 419-430.

Simonton, D. (1994). Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. The Guilford Press.

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