Ted Kaczynski was gifted. He entered Harvard at 16 and became an assistant professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley by 25. But we now know him as a person who was not psychologically well adjusted. Even his younger brother David always sensed something was unusual about Ted, as recounted in a recent article for Psychology Today.

Murray Gell-Mann was gifted. He entered Yale at 15 and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Unlike Kaczynski, he appeared to be psychologically well adjusted.

Both Kaczynski and Gell-Mann were gifted children who grew up to be gifted adults and achieved some measure of fame. But they had very different achievements with vastly different consequences.

Which story is more common among the gifted?

The answer is that nearly all gifted kids do not go on to win something as prestigious as a Nobel Prize or become something as notorious as the Unabomber. In fact, these two stories are extreme examples exhibiting the wide variability in later outcomes among the gifted population. On average, a synthesis of the research shows that gifted children end up as psychologically well-adjusted and quite high-achieving adults.

Well-being of young gifted children

Based on his famous longitudinal study of gifted kids, Lewis Terman argued that gifted children are less likely to suffer psychological problems than their non-gifted peers. But what about very young gifted kids?

New research led by Evelyn Kroesbergen just published in Gifted Child Quarterly compared 35 gifted and 34 typically developing 1st and 2nd grade students in the Netherlands on a variety of psychological well-being measures. Even though there was variability in their findings, the authors concluded:

“In general, the results showed that gifted children do not necessarily have a lower or higher level of well-being than their peers at a young age. However, specific subgroups of gifted children that teachers fail to identify, due to underachievement or in education undervalued talents such as creativity, are at risk for lower levels of psychological well-being.”

Even though the samples were quite small, this research study was interesting because it looked at the well-being of very young gifted kids. What happens to that well-being, on average, when gifted kids grow up?

Well-being of gifted children grown up

In addition to findings from Terman’s longitudinal study, I will discuss two longitudinal studies that speak to the well-being of gifted students. The first is a study of gifted students who entered college early—like Kaczynski and Gell-Mann—and followed up later in life. The second is a study of gifted students identified at age 13 and followed up later in life.

Nancy Hertzog and Rachel Chung surveyed 192 alums of the University of Washington early entrance to college program. This 35 year follow-up was published in Roeper Review. In terms of educational, occupational and socio-emotional outcomes generally, these students were doing very well. For example, “respondents indicated they were either very happy or fairly happy in terms of academic achievement (97.4%), family (93.2%), friendships (87.9%), work (87.4%), financial (82.7%), and romantic relationships (77.2%).” Overall then, the long-term well-being of these educationally accelerated gifted students was quite high.

David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and Harrison Kell surveyed 1,650 gifted students from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth identified at age 13 and followed up 40 years later. This research was published in Psychological Science and found that gifted students ended up as very high achievers later in life. The authors also concluded that across indicators of well-being, adjustment, and satisfaction, “ratings of men and women were uniformly high and comparable.” This was at midlife.

Distinguishing extreme stories from average scientific findings

Overall, gifted students go on to be high achieving well-adjusted adults. However, as Sidney Moon pointed out, this does not mean gifted student’s don’t face problems or challenges. Many do, and without appropriate academic challenge and acknowledgement of the psychological issues they might face, this can potentially do harm.

In each of the studies discussed here, averages were presented, but around those averages lies great variability. Intellectually talented or gifted students show great variation on traits or outcomes that are not based on the one they are largely selected for: intelligence.

For many gifted students, along with their intellectual ability come issues such as not being able to fit in with the crowd. By definition, it makes sense that fitting in with everyone else is much easier if you are normal on a variety of traits including intelligence and social skill. So life is not necessarily easy for students who are by definition not the average or norm when it comes to intellectual ability.

And yet, as Leta Hollingworth aptly pointed out in the classic text The Gifted Child, the "problems of the gifted pertain chiefly to the period before twelve years of age, for the problems of the gifted person tend to be less numerous as he [or she] grows older and can use his [or her] intelligence independently in gaining control of his [or her] own life." Perhaps this might help explain why well-being was reported as uniformly quite high by gifted students at midlife.

I started this piece with two extreme examples because they are well known individuals. But after reviewing the mountain of evidence on the well-being of gifted students I hope it is clear to the reader that there is a larger lesson to be learned about individual stories about gifted kids: they are N’s of 1 and cannot be generalized to the population.

The scientific evidence shows that, on average, gifted individuals from young until they are old tend to have psychological well-being that does not differ from their peers. They also tend to be quite high-achieving.

Keep that in mind the next time you read any story about a child prodigy.

© 2016 by Jonathan Wai. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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