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One Personality Trait Distinguishes Gifted People

Research looks at correlations between Big 5 traits and giftedness.

Key points

  • Giftedness seems like a blessing but may be a burden.
  • Gifted individuals have learning differences, including divergent thinking, quirky humor, and a penchant for complexity, that set them apart.
  • Openness to experience is a key personality trait found in association with giftedness.
  • Giftedness is not associated with less-social personality traits, dispelling the myth that gifted individuals have innate social problems.

We are fascinated by gifted people, from those with unusual and specific talents who are otherwise ordinary or even challenged, to those who appear almost as mythical beings, able to master many disciplines and get things done to an extraordinary extent.

The Pros and Cons of Giftedness

Misunderstood gifted people face difficult struggles, often only coming into their own later in life, though, increasingly, work on “profoundly gifted” (PG) children is carving out room for them to do well earlier on in traditional educational settings. Gifted kids are often stigmatized, labeled as weird or antisocial, and are more likely to be bullied or excluded.

Because giftedness is poorly understood, educational, social, and professional settings may contribute to social problems by not providing a home for such people. Furthermore, unlike those with traditional learning differences, it is harder to see where giftedness can create challenges when there are so many positives.

According to the Davidson Institute, PG people exhibit the following tendencies: rapid comprehension, an intuitive understanding of the basics, a tendency toward complexity, the need for precision, high expectations, divergent interests—and a quirky sense of humor. They usually show “asynchronous development," being remarkably ahead in some areas while being average or behind in other ways. It’s hard to know where they fit in, and educational settings typically are not designed to accommodate their differences. Especially for younger children, youthful appearance clashes with advanced ability, making it harder for certain teachers to be responsive.

Is There a Gifted Personality Type?

While many things contribute to giftedness, including various types of intelligence, genetic factors, and upbringing, one key area of interest is personality. Do gifted people look different in terms of personality compared to "non-gifted"1 individuals? In the journal High Ability Studies, researchers Ogurlu and Özbey (2021) conduct a meta-analysis of the literature on personality and giftedness to see where the Big 5 personality traits of Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, and Agreeableness fit in.

They reviewed multiple databases to find research articles meeting stringent criteria to include in their pooled analysis, whittling 103 citations down to a final group of 13 high-quality studies for review. They identified 83 factors related to giftedness, age, gender, and personality in the final pooled sample of almost 8,000 people, including 3,244 gifted individuals.

Using sophisticated statistical methods, they compared personality measures between gifted and non-gifted groups to see which personality traits significantly correlated with giftedness. There were no significant differences between the gifted and non-gifted groups for Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, or Neuroticism. However, Openness to Experience was more strongly correlated with giftedness, with a moderately strong effect size. In addition, they found that other factors, including age, gender, individual study sample, and geographical location, did not account for giftedness or the relationship between Openness and giftedness.

The Gift of Giftedness

Openness to Experience is a key component of intelligence, contributing to creativity and the capacity to consider multiple options and perspectives in approaching life, solving problems, and understanding complex situations. Openness fits with the observed proclivity gifted people have for complexity and divergent thinking, and the remarkable and sometimes astonishing knack gifted people have for seeing things others would never notice or even imagine. Not to mention the quirky sense of humor, which can be a double-edged sword.

Another important implication of this study is that while gifted people are at times stereotyped as having awkward or maladaptive personalities, less-social traits including lower extroversion, lower agreeableness, and higher neuroticism were not correlated with giftedness. Conscientiousness, interestingly, was not associated with giftedness, although it is independently associated with performance in work and academic settings. Being gifted does not guarantee success, but it contributes when properly wielded.

Though correlation is not causation, it is tempting to wonder whether one could increase Openness. Research suggests that it is possible to change personality in desired directions. Many enriched educational approaches include pedagogy designed to cultivate imagination, creativity, and lateral thinking. Can adults choose to broaden their horizons or opt to keep a narrow view, or is this choice itself in the first place a function of Openness? External motivations to increase Openness, such as dating someone more open-minded or wanting to advance professionally, might lead individuals to try new things more than they would if left to their own devices.

Future research can look at interventions to understand whether open-mindedness, if desired, can be acquired. Research on giftedness is important in order to dispel the myths and stigma that are roadblocks for gifted individuals to thrive throughout the lifespan as well as to help develop and provide the resources needed for society to best benefit from these individuals, by informing educational policy and practice, and continuing to understand the causes of, and remedies for, underachievement.

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1. "Non-gifted" is the term used in the original paper.

Uzeyir Ogurlu & Adnan Özbey (2021): Personality differences in gifted versus non-gifted individuals: A three-level meta-analysis, High Ability Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13598139.2021.1985438.

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