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An Interview with Roland S. Persson: The Talent of Being Inconvenient

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question by Michael Shaughnessy: Dr. Persson, you recently presented a paper at the 18th World Conference on Gifted and Talented Children. What was the exact title of your paper?

Answer by Roland Persson: “The Talent of Being Inconvenient: On the Societal Functions of Giftedness.”

Question: Why are gifted children and adolescents often “inconvenient” in the schools?

Answer: You can be “inconvenient” in any number of ways, of course, but in relation to being academically gifted, it is not always appreciated amongst teachers or other students to be a “know-it-all”: one who usually has all the correct answers. Even though I think this is a universal problem, to some degree it is also one differentiated by culture. In school systems where children are expected to be more passive receivers of knowledge, it is not likely that any child being too independent of mind or action is much appreciated if diverting from expected behavior. In school systems where children are more active and learning is more of a cooperation between teachers and students, tolerance is likely to be greater. But being too extreme would be a problem there as well. Then, of course, there are school systems which do not recognize giftedness at all as a viable reason for an adapted curriculum, such as is the case in the Swedish and Norwegian school systems. In these environments teaching is certainly student-active, but giftedness is a considerable inconvenience because students who want more, know more, and learn quicker than everyone else only become a further reason for teacher stress. Gifted students become inconvenient indeed! In a recent study, I found that 92% of students in the Swedish compulsory school system, with an IQ beyond 131 (n = 287), were everything from ignored to harassed by their teachers, resulting in some students even becoming suicidal.

Question: Why are gifted adults often “inconvenient” in their place of work?

Answer: Interestingly, there is not much research done of this. Apart from my own study, I have only managed to find one other Dutch study. However, there is anecdotal evidence of managers resisting to employ academically gifted individuals because they “tend to be a nuisance.” Kelly Streznewski provides a few horrifying examples in her book Gifted Grown-ups from 1999.

Question: Why and when are gifted individuals likely to be “considered inconvenient or ignored”?

Answer: In many ways this is a complex question, but, for a change, I believe the answer is fairly simple and straight forward. A gifted individual becomes inconvenient either when posing a threat to others’ low self-esteem or when being perceived as a threat to social authority. There is a saying, namely that the pen is mightier than the sword, meaning that truth by written knowledge will prevail. However, in evolutionary terms, this is a somewhat naïve understanding of the matter. Only knowledge that serves dominant power structures would be “mighty.” Sometimes in the world of struggling for dominance, knowledge falls short. Guess who discovers it first? The academically gifted most likely.

History is replete with examples: individuals who see and understand injustices, bring them to light believing this will be a good deed, but, more often than not, find themselves having become “inconvenient.” In short, our genetically imprinted social behavior, which we share with other species, decides whether we are friends or foes of authority. As a rule, perceived “foes” are ignored.

Question: When and why are they likely to be esteemed?

Answer: It follows from what I just said, that strengthening the power positions of others superior to yourself is also very likely to strengthen your own position. To demonstrate this to my students, I pick two well known scientists with opposing views and present students with the following scenario: Imagine that you are one of them. You have built a life-long career on theories and understandings, which have become well accepted and form much of our current knowledge in a certain field. Along comes another researcher who disapproves much of what you have done by valid argumentation and presents much empirical evidence to support given claims. What do you do? Do you fold and acknowledge the new ideas because you are completely convinced they are correct? Do you leave your life’s work behind, taking off from this entirely new platform of theory and knowledge? Or do you do your utmost to refute the new findings and find every way of defending yourself and your current position of influence? Students are usually quick to pick up on this and realize that the more likely scenario is a battle between schools of thought, a battle not so much fought over different ideas as one fought for social dominance. The disapproved scientist is fighting to stay on top and maintain his or her level of power and influence. Hence, “truth and knowledge” become less important, and “dominance” is very likely to become all-important. This has been brilliantly studied and exemplified by Ulrica Segerstråle (2000) of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in her book Defenders of the Truth.

Question: Tell us about the 4 different problems gifted individuals face in the world of work.

Answer: I studied this too by means of academically gifted individuals’ perceived degree of work satisfaction. As it turns out, the gifted have problems with co-workers because of being more efficient, knowing more, and learning faster than the more regular workforce. This creates social tension. They also tend to run into trouble with their managers, who do not understand them and who fail to provide appropriate work suited to their skills and efficiency. However, 25% of the studied group did indeed thrive and could not imagine having a better and more rewarding job than they already had. This group was comprised of top executives and individuals running their own business. This is not a surprising finding. It has been known for a long time that one of the main factors in creating work satisfaction is to experience that your own effort, suggestions, and decisions have a direct influence on your work situation. In other words, you have to be allowed to perceive yourself as being important, with a view to making a difference where you work. For the academically gifted, this seems only possible if they position themselves as top executives or run their own business. In most other types of work, they risk becoming misfits of sorts if they do not adapt to the less effective and not-so-circumspect social environment. This in turn creates alienation at work.

Question: What do the “nerd, the hero and the martyr” all have in common?

Answer: The neglect of the research community to address social factors such as the societal function of gifted individuals made me search for a taxonomy by which such functions could be described. The academically gifted individuals whom I have met during 15 years of studying giftedness simply have not conformed to much of the knowledge base that we currently have on giftedness and talent. It is easy to see why. Almost all research is pursued in countries where giftedness is an officially recognized issue to study, and so the ones studied are part of educational systems recognizing their existence and often their special needs. However, I have usually met individuals who never have been officially recognized as gifted, yet they have all featured the telltale signs of being exceedingly gifted. These individuals offer a take on life, which I think is largely unknown for a majority of researchers and educators thus far.

Somewhat simplistically, perhaps, I construed societal functions as Maintenance, Escape, and Change,typified by the more common parlance expressions of Nerd, Hero, and Martyr. The common denominator for these is their relationship to socio-biological function and theory; that is, they relate to group dynamics as governed by dominance in various ways. Gifted individuals interested in, for example, technology, medicine, or finance—“the nerds”—all serve supportive functions in society. They are rarely controversial because their skills contribute towards maintaining society, its leaders on all levels, and its power structure as a whole. Also individuals gifted in sports, music, and the arts are much appreciated. A few are rewarded more for the moments of release from stress that their gifts offer. They allow us for a moment to escape into a very positive experience. As scientists, we go to great lengths to study the constituents of their skills. However, when it comes to gifted individuals having the potential to change the social world by their knowledge and insight, they are rarely as appreciated as their colleagues more devoted to maintenance and escape. We tend to fail to realize the consequences of having an uncanny grasp of cause and effect, so typical of the academically gifted. When confronted with certain conditions and decisions, the gifted individual is very good at understanding what the outcome will be. However, being one voice in a group of others less equipped to foresee the results and problems, who in the group is inclined to listen and acknowledge the single and voice differing in opinion and conclusion? If this individual is being contrary to the leadership, harassment and persecution are sure to follow in one way or another. Interestingly, it rarely matters whether the gifted individual is right or wrong; he or she poses a threat to the credibility of authority. Again, history is full of examples, and “martyr” is sadly an appropriate term.

The greater the prestige to be lost, the more severe the battle to retain dominance and authority. Or, as Ellen Winner (1996) put it Gifted Children: The gifted are risk-takers with a desire to shake things up. Most of all they have the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view. They are oppositional and discontented.


Dr. Persson is a Professor of Educational Psychology, editorial board member of Education Today (UK) and Gifted and Talented International(US), a psychometric consultant to The Swedish Foundation for Applied Psychology (STP), Editor in Chief of High Ability Studies (ECHA/Routledge) 1998 – 2002, and contributor to many of the standard handbooks and encyclopedic works on Giftedness/Talent and Gifted Education. His research focuses widely on giftedness and talent but has an emphasis on social context and the gifted individual in society. Current aspects within this frame are equity issues (egalitarianism), gender, music behaviour, gifted education, and social perception.



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