The Impact of Giftedness on Psychological Well-Being

By Maureen Neihart.

There is evidence to support two contrasting views about the psychological well-being of gifted children; that giftedness enhances resiliency in individuals and that giftedness increases vulnerability. There is empirical and theoretical evidence to support both views. It is clear that giftedness influences the psychological well-being of individuals. Whether the psychological outcomes for gifted children, adolescents, and adults are positive or negative seems to depend on at least three factors that interact synergistically: the type of giftedness, the educational fit, and one’s personal characteristics.

There is a long history of interest in how giftedness affects psychological well-being (Berndt, Kaiser, & Van Aalst, 1982; Eysenck, 1995; Freeman, 1983; Hollingworth, 1942; Parker & Mills, 1996; Ramaseshan, 1957; Reynolds & Bradley, 1983; Richards, 1989; Strang, 1950; Watson, 1965). During the last 50 years, two conflicting views prevailed. The first is that gifted children are generally better adjusted than their nongifted peers; that giftedness protects children from maladjustment. This view hypothesized that the gifted are capable of greater understanding of self and others due to their cognitive capacities and therefore cope better with stress, conflicts and developmental dyssynchrony than their peers. Studies supporting this view report that gifted children demonstrate better adjustment than their average peers when measured on a variety of factors (Baker, 1995; Jacobs, 1971; Kaiser, Berndt, & Stanley, 1987; Neihart, 1991; Ramasheshan, 1957; Scholwinski & Reynols, 1985).

The second view is that gifted children are more at-risk for adjustment problems than their nongifted peers, that giftedness increases a child’s vulnerability to adjustment difficulties. Supporters of this view believe that gifted children are at greater risk for emotional and social problems, particularly during adolescence and adulthood. Their hypothesis is that the gifted are more sensitive to interpersonal conflicts and experience greater degrees of alienation and stress than do their peers as a result of their cognitive capacities.

Historically, one view prevails over the other. In the late 1800’s, it was widely accepted that giftedness increased vulnerability (Lombroso, 1889). However, this view was later traded for the notion that the gifted are better adjusted when Terman and his associates’ (1925, 1935, 1947) longitudinal research suggested that people of high ability exhibited less incidence of mental illness and adjustment problems than average. In 1981, a gifted high school student named Dallas Egbert killed himself. His highly publicized suicide increased awareness that gifted children can have psychological difficulties, that they are not immune to problems. People no longer assumed that the gifted were superior in their psychological functioning. The phrase, “social and emotional needs of the gifted” was coined at this time. There was a surge of research attempting to measure the adjustment of gifted children (Berndt, Kaiser, & Van Aalst, 1982; Freeman, 1983; Janos, Marwood & Robinson, 1985; Lajoie & Shore, 1981; Leroux, 1986; Prentky, 1980; Reynolds & Bradley, 1983 ; Richards, 1989; Scholwinski & Reynolds,1985; Tomlinson-Keasey & Warren, 1987). Suicide, delinquency, anxiety, and depression were some of the specific factors investigated in gifted populations during this period.

During the nineties, the debate continues regarding whether gifted people are more or less at-risk than their nongifted peers. Interestingly, there is research support for both views. How then, do we reconcile them? What can we say about the impact of giftedness on psychological wellbeing? Researchers are increasingly examining smaller and smaller pieces of the gifted experience (Baker, 1995; Cross, Cook & Dixon, 1996; Dixon & Scheckel, 1996; Gust & Cross, 1997; Hewitt, Flett, & Ediger, 1996; Jackson, 1998; Jamison, 1989, 1993; McCallister, Nash, & Meckstroth, 1996; Parker & Mills, 1996; Rothenberg, 1990; Richards, 1989). Investigators employ a variety of approaches to evaluate the impact of giftedness on children’s adjustment. Some examined global measures of adjustment such as self concept. Many measured specific factors known to be associated with either positive or negative adjustment such as depression, anxiety, delinquency, or social coping. The aims of this article are to highlight the research that supports these contrasting views and to suggest ways to reconcile the paradox.

Giftedness and Global Measures of Adjustment Many writers concluded that high ability children are at least as well, if not better, adjusted than other children (Colangelo & Zaffrann, 1974; Gallucci, 1988; Grossberg & Cornell, 1988; Howard-Hamilton & Franks, 1995; Nail & Evans, 1997; Olszewski-Kubilius, Kukieke, & Krasney, 1988; Parker, 1996; Ramaseshan, 1957; Witty, 1955). Adjustment refers to an individual’s pattern of responding to environmental demands. Persons with positive adjustment are able to cope effectively with the demands of life. Persons with negative adjustment have maladaptive coping strategies or lack enough coping skills to deal effectively with stress. The finding that high ability (typically defined as high IQ) individuals demonstrate superior adjustment is supported by empirical research (Freeman 1979; 1983, Grossberg & Cornell, 1988; Kaufmann, 1981; McCallister, Nash, & Meckstroth, 1996; Metha, McWhirter, 1997; Neihart, 1991; Reynolds & Bradley, 1983; Scholwinski & Reynolds, 1985; Witty, 1951; 1955). For example, Freeman found no differences in rates of emotional deviance when she compared 70 high ability children with two matched control groups. When Kaufmann (1981) studied Presidential Scholars, she observed that high ability subjects in her study rated themselves higher on positive personality traits than did average ability subjects. Grossberg and Cornell (1988) also found a positive correlation between high intelligence and adjustment.

Early research on psychological well-being used broad measures of personality or behaviors such as the Rorschach, the MMPI, or a behavior checklist. For example, Ramaseshan (1957) compared the social and emotional adjustment of gifted students with a normative group on the Washburne Social Adjustment Inventory and a five-point teacher rating scale. Ramaseshan asked teachers to rate all subjects on a five point scale for the following traits: Personality, Responsibility, Adjustment, Initiative, Work Habits, Cooperation, Attendance, and Social Tendency. The gifted group was shown to be superior as compared to the norms predicted for social adjustment on the Washburne. She concluded, “The gifted and the average are separate groups. The gifted give better evidence for social adjustment” (p. 91). However, Ramaseshan (1957) did not explain how subjects for the gifted sample were originally screened. It is likely that they were originally nominated by teachers which probably biased the sample.

Welsh (1969) used the MMPI and the Adjective Checklist to measure adjustment of more than 1000 high ability adolescents who attended the Governor’s School of North Carolina. There was no tuition fee for the program so his results were not confounded by socioeconomic factors, as is often the case in studies done with summer programs. However, the selection criteria for the governor’s program likely excluded any child who manifested behavioral or emotional problems. Welsh found no indicators of deviance in the sample.

Gair (1944), Gallagher and Crowder (1957), Mensh, (1950) and Jacobs (1971), each studied the psychological wellbeing of high ability children by analysis of Rorschach responses. Gair determined that his adolescent subjects showed better emotional adjustment and greater maturity of personality than same-age peers of average intellectual