What have we learned from 100 years of longitudinal research on intellectual talent?

By the Duke Talent Identification Program

A recent article published by distinguished gifted education scholar David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University, “From Terman to today: A century of findings on intellectual precocity,” serves as an excellent resource for parents, students, and educators who are interested in the findings of two major longitudinal studies of the gifted which roughly span the last century, and more broadly the historical progression of research on the gifted. Here are brief descriptions of the longitudinal studies:

Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius: Launched in the early 1920’s and included over 1,500 adolescents identified in the top 1% of general intellectual ability.

Julian Stanley’s longitudinal Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY): Launched in the early 1970’s, now co-directed by Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski, and included over 5,000 adolescents identified in the top 1% of general intellectual ability.

The level and pattern of abilities matter

Terman’s study showed that top 1% individuals tended to be quite successful overall. SMPY findings also showed that top 1% individuals are quite successful then documented that more ability matters even within that highly select 1% and that one’s pattern of math, verbal, and spatial abilities over and above their general ability matters in the prediction of multiple educational, occupational and creative outcomes.

Ability level: SMPY findings have demonstrated that even within the top 1% of ability, more ability matters. Therefore the idea that beyond a certain ability threshold, say an IQ of 120, more ability doesn’t matter has been shown to be false.

Ability pattern: SMPY extended the findings of Terman by showing that in addition to general ability level, an individual’s level and pattern of math, verbal, and spatial ability all played an important role in the prediction of later outcomes. For example, individuals with relatively higher verbal compared to math/spatial talents tend to end up in humanities professions, whereas individuals with relatively higher math/spatial compared to verbal talents tend to end up in STEM professions.

Interests and values matter

Measured interests and values of gifted youth also predict later outcomes over and above ability level and pattern. Theoretical (the discovery of truth: empiricism, intellectualism), Economic (that which is useful: resourceful, practical affairs), Aesthetic (form and harmony: grace, artistry in life), Social (love of people: altruism, sympathy, caring), Political (power in all realms: influence, leadership), and Religious (unity of life: comprehension of life’s meaning, holiness) values and their pattern all helped improve prediction of later outcomes.

Educational stimulation and hours devoted to talent development matters

Both the Terman study and SMPY study showed that advanced educational stimulation matters for gifted individuals to fully develop their talent and actualize their intellectual potential. One study from SMPY showed that grade skipping is a highly effective intervention on later achievement, and another study showed that it may not necessarily be one specific intervention that matters for the development of gifted youth but rather the right mix and intensity of interventions—the appropriate educational dosage—to keep them intellectually stimulated and engaged. Additionally, findings from SMPY have also shown that the willingness to work long hours varies greatly among the gifted population and thus is also likely connected to long-term development of expertise.

In general, gifted youth grow up to be highly accomplished and well-adjusted adults

In 1916, the predominant view of the gifted child was “early to ripe, early to rot,” including the idea that gifted kids were physically weak and emotionally unstable. However, Terman’s findings by the 1930’s had already shown this to be incorrect. Findings from SMPY indicate that, broadly, gifted youth grow up to be highly accomplished adults, achieving doctorates, a higher income, patents, publications, university tenure and other creative achievements at very high rates relative to the general population. Gifted youth also grow up to be no different from their same age peers in terms of reported broad life satisfaction regarding personal and family life.

Of course, this review of the research and highlights of key findings is based on gifted students overall, and the individual path through life for each gifted student is certainly not average but unique. However, these broad findings can be useful in understanding what longitudinal research across the last 100 years has demonstrated and should be known by parents, students, and educators who hope to help gifted youth develop to their fullest.