The Moral Sensitivity of Gifted Children and the Evolution of Society

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

By Linda K. Silverman.

Abstract: In this article, I use a combination of clinical observations and theoretical propositions to demonstrate that the cognitive complexity and certain personality traits of the gifted create unique experiences and awarenesses that separate them from others. A central feature of the gifted experience is their moral sensitivity, which is essential to the welfare of the entire society. These inner qualities of the gifted are overlooked in most of the formulations of giftedness and talent. Giftedness defined as asynchronous development, a phenomenological approach, focuses on the inner world of gifted children, and stresses their vulnerability in society. I conclude by emphasizing the relationship between abstract reasoning, complexity, moral values and the evolution of society.


Antoine (age 6) is a worrier. He bites his nails, he loses sleep and if he is really worried about something he finds it hard to eat or sleep. These worries can be the ozone, endangered animals, NASA funding. I think this sensitivity comes from an in-depth understanding of what the actual consequences of his concerns can be. He knows that if we do not protect a species that it will no longer be in existence so his children and their children will never know what they were like. That’s what makes him worry…. He is my righter of wrongs; truth, justice and fairness are his requirements.


When Antoine was nine months old, he and his mother participated in a child development study. The examiner asked Antoine to pick up a doll and spank it three times. He refused. After the third request, he glared at the examiner, grabbed the doll, gently turned it over and spanked it the required three times. Then he hugged the doll tightly to comfort it and would not give it back to the examiner. Antoine is highly gifted (IQ 150+).


Antoine [a pseudonym] is one of over 1,800 children whose stories are recorded in clinical files at the Gifted Development Center. His sensitivity and empathy, surfacing as early as nine months, appear to be innate. When parents are asked to describe their gifted children, “sensitive” appears more frequently than any other trait (Silverman, 1983). Sensitivity takes many forms: their feelings are easily hurt; they are compassionate toward others, protective, and easily moved to tears; they feel others’ feelings, respond strongly to criticism, and tend to react strongly to light, noise, textures, air pollution, and certain foods. Perfectionism and intensity also appear with great regularity in parental descriptions of gifted children (Silverman, 1993a). Another personality trait that characterizes at least half of the gifted population is introversion (Dauber & Benbow, 1990; Gallagher, 1990; Hoehn & Bireley, 1988; Myers, 1962; Silverman, 1986). Introverts have deep feelings, are reflective and introspective, and withdraw into themselves rather than acting aggressively toward others. While there are many more descriptors that apply to gifted children, these four — sensitivity, perfectionism, intensity and introversion — have particular developmental, psychological, and social salience. In combination, they demonstrate the emotional complexity of the gifted. Their origin and significance are made clearer within the context of Dabrowski’s theory.


Dabrowski’s Theory of Emotional Development Kazimierz Dabrowski (1964, 1967, 1972), a Polish psychologist and psychiatrist, based his theory of emotional development,(the Theory of Positive Disintegration) on the study of sensitive, nonaggressive, highly intelligent, and creative individuals. He found such individuals oppressed in societies oriented toward competition, power, status, and wealth. Dabrowski postulated that certain innate response patterns provide a foundation for the development of higher order values in adult life. Through neurological examinations, Dabrowski (1972) documented that creatively gifted individuals had more pronounced responses to various types of stimuli. He called this phenomenon “nadpobudliwosc,” (“superstimulatability”); it has been translated as “overexcitability.” This powerful neural excitation comes in five varieties: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. The overexcitabilities (OEs) may be thought of as an abundance of physical energy, heightened acuity of the senses, vivid imagination, intellectual curiosity and drive, and a deep capacity to care. Individuals may experience one or more of these OEs at varying degrees of intensity. The greater the strength of the OEs, the greater the developmental potential for following an ethical, compassionate path in adulthood (Lysy & Piechowski. 1983; Piechowski, 1979). Numerous studies have shown the gifted to have stronger OEs than nonselected groups (see Nelson, 1989; Silverman, 1993b; and Miller, Silverman & Falk, in press, for reviews).


Sensitivity, perfectionism, intensity and introversion are all aspects of emotional overexcitability: “emotional ties and attachments, concern for others (empathy), sensitivity in relationships”; “self-evaluation and self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority”; “intensity of feeling: e.g., extremes of emotion, complex emotions and feelings”; and “inhibition (timidity, shyness)” (Piechowski, 1979, adapted in Silverman, 1993b, p. 14). Therefore, according to Dabrowski’s theory, gifted children who exhibit high degrees of sensitivity are endowed with high emotional OE. Perfectionism begins as a facet of emotional OE, but can evolve into the drive for self-perfection propelling the individual toward higher level development (Silverman, 1990). Intensity, while a strong indicator of emotional OE, has at times been used synonymously with all the OEs (Kitano, 1990; Lind, 1993). Introversion, often perceived negatively in our extraverted society, is actually a developmentally positive trait since it indicates the capacity to inhibit aggression.


Dabrowski (1979/1994) described overexcitable people as: “delicate, gentle, sensitive, empathic, nonaggressive, industrious, wise though unsophisticated, never brutal, often inhibited, likely to withdraw into themselves rather than retaliate, having deep feelings, idealistic” (pp. 87-90). He felt that, because of their sensitivity and integrity, these individuals are capable of bringing humanity to a higher set of values, but that they are at great risk of being destroyed by society because of their inherent differences. The values Dabrowski (1979/1994) considered indispensable to harmonious living include: an empathic attitude toward others; tolerance (not aggression); responsibility for others and for self; a just attitude (treating everybody by the same standards); helping each other; giving thought to the harmed and humiliated, to invalids, to the sick, to the ineffectual and those devastated by their own loneliness; truthfulness; authenticity; and (9) just social care. However, those who have these values are often pushed aside in an insensitive society, and treated as if they were maladjusted. Dabrowski considered the so-called neurotics with high ideals “a mine of social treasure. If their emotionality, talents, interests, and sensitivity were discovered at an early age, society and science would profit” (pp. 87-88).


Moral Sensitivity and the Gifted The values endorsed by Dabrowski are seen frequently in parental descriptions of gifted children:


· R is honest — will tell the truth even if he gets in trouble; sensitive — shows concern for others’ feelings; sensitive — easily hurt; has a clear sense of right and wrong…


· P is quite sensitive to the feelings of others and has a well developed sense of justice. She befriends the outcasts in her class and will not tolerate cruelty from other children. She comments to me if she feels her teacher is not treating children consistently.