“Giftedness” and Genius, Crucial Differences

This es­say by Arthur Jensen is from an old book .

The ge­nius has limits. A sim­ple an­swer, and un­doubt­edly true. But my
as­sign­ment here is to re­flect on the much more com­plex differ­ence­
be­tween in­tel­lec­tual gift­ed­ness and ge­nius, us­ing the lat­ter term in it­s
o­rigi­nal sense, as so­cially rec­og­nized, out­stand­ingly cre­ative achieve­ment. In­
this think-piece (which is just that, rather than a com­pre­hen­sive re­view of the­
liter­a­ture), I will fo­cus on fac­tors, many in­trigu­ing in and of them­selves, that
are char­ac­ter­is­tic of ge­nius. My pri­mary the­sis is that the emer­gence of ge­nius is­
best de­scribed us­ing a mul­ti­plica­tive model.

I will ar­gue that ex­cep­tional achieve­ment is a mul­ti­plica­tive func­tion of a
num­ber of differ­ent traits, each of which is nor­mally dis­tributed, but which in­
com­bi­na­tion are so syn­er­gis­tic as to skew the re­sult­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of achieve­
ment. An ex­tremely ex­tended up­per tail is thus pro­duced, and it is within this­
tail that ge­nius can be found. An in­ter­est­ing two-part ques­tion then arises: how­
many differ­ent traits are in­volved in pro­duc­ing ex­traor­di­nary achieve­ment, and­
what are they? The mus­ings that fol­low provide some con­jec­tures that can be
drawn on to an­swer this crit­i­cal ques­tion.
As a sub­ject for sci­en­tific study, the topic of ge­nius, al­though im­mensely­
fas­ci­nat­ing, is about as far from ideal as any phe­nom enon one can find. The­
liter­a­ture on real ge­nius can claim lit­tle be­sides bi­o­graph­i­cal anec­dotes and­
spec­u­la­tion, with this chap­ter con­tribut­ing only more of the same. Whether the
s­tudy of ge­nius will ever evolve from a liter­ary art form into a sys­tem­atic sci­en­ce
is it­self highly spec­u­la­tive. The most promis­ing efforts in this di­rec­tion are
those by Si­mon­ton (198 8 ) and Eysenck (1 9 9 5 ), with Eysenck’s mono­graph
leav­ing lit­tle of po­ten­tial sci­en­tific value that can be added to the sub­ject at­
p­re­sent, pend­ing new em­piri­cal ev­i­dence.


Ear­lier I stated that ge­nius has limits. But its up­per limit, at least in some fields,
seems to be as­tro­nom­i­cally higher than its lower limit. More­over, the up­per­
lim it of ge­nius can­not be de­scribed as char­ac­ter­ized by pre­coc­ity, high in­tel­
ligence, knowl­edge and prob­lem -solv­ing skills be­ing learned with speed an­d
ease, out­stand­ing aca­demic achieve­ment, hon­ors and awards, or even in­tel­lec­
tual pro­duc­tivity. Although such at­tributes are com­monly found at all lev­els of­
ge­nius, they are not dis­crim­i­nat­ing in the realm of ge­nius.
My point is per­haps most clearly illus­trated by the con­trast be­tween two
fa­mous math­e­mat­i­ci­ans who be­came closely as­so­ci­ated with one an­other as
“teacher” and “stu­dent.” T he rea­son for the quo­ta­tion marks here will soon be
ob­vi­ous, be­cause the teacher later claimed that he learned more from the
s­tu­dent than the stu­dent had learned from him . G. H. Hardy was England’s
lead­ing math­e­mat­i­cian, a pro­fes­sor at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, a Fel­low of the
Royal So­ciety, and the re­cip­i­ent of an hon­orary de­gree from Har­vard. Rem ark­
ably pre­co­cious in early child­hood, es­pe­cially in m athem at­ics, he be­came an ex­cep­tion­ally brilli­ant stu­dent, win­ning a schol­ar­ship af­ter an­other ac­knowl­edged the star grad­u­ate in math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge, where he re­mained to be­come a pro­fes­sor of m athem at­ics. He also be­came a world-class­
math­e­mat­i­cian. His long­time friend C. R Snow re­lates that Hardy, at the peak
of his ca­reer, ranked him­self fifth among the most im­por­tant math­e­mat­i­ci­an­s
of his day, and it should be pointed out that Hardy’s col­leagues re­garded him as
an overly mod­est man (Snow, 1967). If the Study of Math­e­mat­i­cally Pre­co­cious
Youth (SMPY) had been in ex­is­tence when Hardy was a schoolboy, he would­
have been a most prized and promis­ing stu­dent in the pro­gram.
One day Hardy re­ceived a strange-look­ing let­ter from Madras, In­dia. It­
was full of math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la­tions writ­ten in a quite un­con­ven­tional—one­
might even say bizarre—form . The writer seemed al­most math­e­mat­i­cally illiter­
by Cam­bridge stan­dards. It was signed “Srini­vasa Ra­manu­jan.” At first­
glance, Hardy thought it might even be some kind of fraud. Puz­zling over this
let­ter with its ab­struse for­mu­la­tions, he sur­mised it was writ­ten ei­ther by so­me
t­rick­ster or by some­one sincere but poorly ed­u­cated in m athem at­ics. Hardy
sought the opinion of his most highly es­teemed col­league, J. E. Lit­tle­wood, the
other fa­mous math­e­mat­i­cian at Cam­bridge. After the two of them had spent­
sev­eral hours study­ing the strange let­ter, they fi­nally re­al­ized, with ex­cite­men­t
and ab­solute cer­tainty, that they had “dis­cov­ered” a ma­jor math­e­mat­i­cal ge­
nius. The weird-look­ing for­mu­las, it turned out, re­vealed profound m athe­
mat­i­cal in­sights of a kind that are never cre­ated by or­di­nar­ily gifted math­e­mat­ics.
Hardy re­garded this “dis­cov­ery” as the sin­gle most im­por­tant event in his­
life. Here was the prospect of fulfilling what, un­til then, had been for him on­ly
an im­prob­a­ble dream: of ever know­ing in per­son a math­e­mat­i­cian pos­si­bly of
Gauss’s cal­iber.
A col­league in Hardy’s de­part­ment then trav­eled to In­dia and per­suad­ed
Ra­manu­jan to go to Cam­bridge, with all his ex­penses and a salary paid by the­
uni­ver­sity. When the youth ar­rived from In­dia, it was ev­i­dent that, by or­di­nary­
s­tan­dards, his ed­u­ca­tional back­ground was mea­ger and his al­most en­tirely self­
taught knowl­edge of math was full of gaps. He had not been at all suc­cess­ful in­
school, from which he had flunked out twice, and was never grad­u­ated. To say,
how­ever, that he was ob­sessed by m athem at­ics is an un­der­state­ment. As a boy in­
Madras, he was too poor to buy pa­per on which to work out his math prob­
lems. He did his prodi­gious math­e­mat­i­cal work on a slate, copy­ing his fi­nal
re­sults with red ink on old, dis­carded news­pa­pers.
While in high school, he thought he had made a stun­ning math­e­mat­i­cal
dis­cov­ery, but he later learned, to his great dis­may, that his dis­cov­ery had
already been made 150 years ear­lier by the great math­e­mat­i­cian Euler. R am anu­
jan felt ex­traor­di­nary shame for hav­ing “dis­cov­ered” some­thing that was no­t
o­rigi­nal, never con­sid­er­ing that only a real ge­nius could have cre­ated or even re­
cre­ated that dis­cov­ery.
At Cam­bridge, Ra­manu­jan was not re­quired to take courses or ex­ams.
That would have been al­most an in­sult and a sure waste of time. He learned some es­sen­tial things from Hardy, but what ex­cited Hardy the most had noth­ing to do with Ra­manu­jan’s great fa­cil­ity in learn­ing the most ad­vanced con­cepts and tech­ni­cal skills of math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­sis. Hardy him­self had that kind of fa­cil­ity. What so im­pressed him was Ra­manu­jan’s

un­canny math­e­mat­i­cal in­tu­ition and ca­pac­ity for in­vent­ing in­cred­ibly origi­nal and profound the­orems. That, of course, is what real math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius is all about. Fa­cil­ity in re­solv­ing text­book prob­lem s and in pass­ing difficult tests is ut­terly triv­ial when
dis­cussing ge­nius. Although work­ing out the proof of a the­o­rem, un­like dis­cov­er­ing a the­o­rem , may take im­mense tech­ni­cal skill and as­si­du­ous effort, it is­
not it­self a hal­l­mark of ge­nius. In­deed, Ra­manu­jan sel­dom both­ered to prove­
his own the­o­rem s; proof was a tech­ni­cal feat that could be left to lesser ge­niuses.
More­over, in some cases, be­cause of his spotty math­e­mat­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, he
p­rob­a­bly would have been un­able to pro­duce a for­mal proof even if he had­
wanted to. But a great many im­por­tant the­o­rems were gen­er­ated in his ob­
pas­sively ac­tive brain. Often he seemed to be in an­other world. One might say
that the differ­ence be­tween Ram anu­jan cre­at­ing a the­o­rem and a pro­fes­sion­al­
math­e­mat­i­cian solv­ing a com­plex prob­lem with stan­dard tech­niques of analysis

is like the differ­ence be­tween St. Fran­cis in ec­stasy and a sleepy vi­car recit­ing the­
morn­ing or­der of prayer.
After his ex­pe­rience with Ra­manu­jan, Hardy told Snow that if the word­
ge­nius meant any­thing, he (Hardy) was not re­ally a ge­nius at all (Snow, 1967, p.
27). Hardy had his own hun­dred-point rat­ing scale of his es­ti­mates of the
“nat­u­ral abil­ity” of em­i­nent math­e­mat­i­ci­ans. Though re­gard­ing him­self at the
tim e as one of the world’s five best pure math­e­mat­i­ci­ans, he gave him­self a
rat­ing of only 25. The great­est math­e­mat­i­cian of that pe­riod, David Hilbert,
was rated 80. But Hardy rated Ra­manu­jan 100, the same rat­ing as he gave Car­l
Friedrich Gauss, who is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the great­est math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius­
the world has known. On the im­por­tance of their to­tal con­tri­bu­tions to math­e­mat­ics, how­ever, Hardy rated him­self 35, Ra­manu­jan 85, and Gauss 100. By this­
reck­on­ing Hardy was seem­ingly an over­achiever and Ra­manu­jan an un­der­
achiever. Yet one must keep in mind that Ra­manu­jan died at age thirty, Hardy at­
sev­enty, and Gauss at sev­enty-eight.
of course, all ge­niuses are by defi­ni­tion ex­trem e over­achiev­ers, in the
s­tatis­ti­cal sense. Noth­ing else that we could have known about them be­sides the­
mon­u­men­tal con­tri­bu­tions we as­cribe to their ge­nius would have pre­dict­ed­
such ex­traor­di­nary achieve­ment. In dis­cussing Ra­manu­jan’s work, the Pol­ish­
math­e­mat­i­cian Mark Kac was forced to make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the “ordi­
nary ge­nius” and the “ma­gi­cian.” He wrote:
An or­di­nary ge­nius is a fel­low that you and I would be just as good as, if we were­
only many times bet­ter. There is no mys­tery as to how his mind works. Once we­
un­der­stand what he has done, we feel cer­tain that we, too, could have done it. It is­
d­iffer­ent with the ma­gi­ci­ans. They are, to use math­e­mat­i­cal jar­gon , in the or­thog­o­nal com­ple­ment of where we are and the work­ing of their minds is for all in­tents
and pur­poses in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Even af­ter we un­der­stand what they have done,
the pro­cess by which they have done it is com­pletely dark. (Quoted in Kanigel,
1991, p. 28 1 ; Kanigel’s splen­did bi­og­ra­phy of Ra­manu­jan is highly recom­mended)

To come back to earth and the point of my me­an­der­ing, ge­nius re­quires­
gift­ed­ness (con­sist­ing es­sen­tially of g, of­ten along with some spe­cial ap­ti­tude or­
tal­ent, such as math­e­mat­i­cal, spa­tial, mu­si­cal, or artis­tic tal­ent). But ob­vi­ous­ly
there are other an­tecedents (to the magic of Ra­manu­jan’s “think­ing pro­cesses”)
that are elu­sive to us. Nonethe­less, we do know of at least two key at­tributes,
be­yond abil­ity, that ap­pear to func­tion as cat­a­lysts for the cre­ation of that­
spe­cial class of be­hav­ioral prod­ucts speci­fi­cally in­dica­tive of ge­nius. They are­
pro­duc­tivity and cre­ativity.


Although we can rec­og­nize cre­ative acts and even quan­tify them af­ter a fash­ion
(MacKin­non, 1962), our un­der­stand­ing of them in any ex­plana­tory sense is
prac­ti­cally nil. Yet one promi­nent hy­poth­e­sis con­cern­ing cre­ativity (by which I
mean the bring­ing into be­ing of some­thing that has not pre­vi­ously ex­isted)
seems to me not only un­promis­ing, but ex­tremely im­plau­si­ble and prob­a­bly­
wrong. It is also in­her­ently un­falsifi­able and hence fails Pop­per’s crite­rion for a
use­ful sci­en­tific the­ory. I doubt that it will sur­vive a truly crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion.
Be­cause rul­ing out one ex­pla­na­tion does fur­ther our un­der­stand­ing of cre­ative­
ity, I will fo­cus on this the­ory.
I am refer­ring here to what has been termed the ch an ce con­figu­ra­tion
the­ory of cre­ativity (well ex­pli­cated by Si­mon­ton, 1988, ch. 1). Essen­tially, it
a­mounts to ex­pect­ing that a com­puter that per­pet­u­ally gen­er­ates strictly ran­
dom se­quences of all the let­ters of the alpha­bet, punc­tu­a­tion signs, and spaces
will even­tu­ally pro­duce Ham­let or some other work of cre­ative ge­nius. The
the­ory in­sists that blind chance act­ing in the pro­cesses of m em ory searches for
ele­ments with which to form ran­dom com­bi­na­tions and per­mu­ta­tions, from
which fi­nally there emerges some product or solu­tion that the world con­sid­er­s
o­rigi­nal or cre­ative. It is also es­sen­tial that, al­though this gen­er­at­ing pro­ces­s
is op­er­at­ing en­tirely by blind chance, the ran­dom per­mu­ta­tions pro­duced
thereby are sub­jected to a crit­i­cal re­jec­tion/​se­lec­tion screen­ing, with se­lec­tive
re­ten­tion of the more promis­ing prod­ucts. This the­ory seems im­plau­si­ble,
partly be­cause of the sheer nu­mer­i­cal ex­plo­sion of the pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tion­s
and per­mu­ta­tions when there are more than just a few el­e­ments. For ex­am­ple,
the let­ters in the word per­mu­ta­tion have 11! = 3 9 ,916,800 pos­si­ble perm uta­
tions. To dis­cover the “right” one by ran­domly per­mut­ing the let­ters at a
con­tin­u­ous rate of one per­mu­ta­tion per sec­ond could take any­where from one
sec­ond (if one were ex­tremely lucky) up to one year, three thirty-day months,
and seven days (if one were equally un­lucky). Even then, these calcu­la­tion­s
as­sume that the ran­dom gen­er­at­ing mechanism never re­peated a par­tic­u­lar
per­mu­ta­tion; oth­er­wise it would take much longer.
The com­bi­na­to­rial and per­mu­ta­tion ex­plo­sion re­sult­ing from an in ­

crease in the num­ber of el­e­ments to be men­tally ma­nipu­lated and the ex­po­nen­
tially in­creased pro­cess­ing time are not, how­ever, the worst prob­lem s for this­
the­ory. The far greater prob­lem is that, just as “na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum,” the­
hu­man mind ab­hors ran­dom ness. I re­call a lec­ture by the statis­ti­cian He­len M.
Walker in which she de­scribed a va­ri­ety of ex­per­i­ments show­ing that in­tel­li­gent­

peo­ple, no mat­ter how so­phis­ti­cated they are about statis­tics or how well they
un­der­stand the mean­ing of ran­dom­ness, and while putting forth their best­
con­scious efforts, are sim­ply in­ca­pable of se­lect­ing, com­bin­ing, or per­mu­ta­tion­
num­bers, let­ters, words, or any­thing else in a truly ran­dom fash­ion. For exam ­
ple, when sub­jects are asked to gen­er­ate a se­ries of ran­dom num­bers, or re­peat­
edly to make a ran­dom se­lec­tion of N items from among a much larger num­ber
of differ­ent ob­jects spread out on a table, or take a ran­dom walk, it turns out no
one can do it. This has been ver­ified by statis­ti­cal tests of ran­dom­ness ap­plied to
their perfor­mance. Peo­ple even have difficulty sim­ply read­ing aloud from a
t­able of ran­dom num­bers with­out in­vol­un­tar­ily and non­ran­dom ly in­sert­in­g
other num­bers. (Ex­am­ples of this phe­nomenon are given in Ken­dall, 1948.)
Thus, ran­dom ness (o r blind chance, to use the fa­vored term in chance­
con­figu­ra­tion the­ory) seems an un­likely ex­pla­na­tion of cre­ative think­ing. This­
the­ory seems to have origi­nated from what may be deemed an in­ap­pro­pri­ate
anal­ogy, namely the the­ory of biolog­i­cal evolu­tion cre­at­ing new liv­ing forms.
Ac­cord­ing to the lat­ter the­ory, a great va­ri­ety of ge­netic effects is pro­duced by
ran­dom mu­ta­tions and the screen­ing out of all vari­a­tions ex­cept those best
adapted to the en­vi­ron­ment—that is, nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. But a ge­netic mu­ta­tion,
pro­duced per­haps by a ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cle hit­ting a sin­gle molecule in the DNA
at ran­dom and al­ter­ing its ge­netic code, is an un­fit­ting anal­ogy for the neces­
sar­ily in­te­grated ac­tion of the myr­iad neu­rons in­volved in the men­tal ma­nip
u­la­tion of ideas.

The Creative Pro­cess
The im­plau­si­bil­ity of ran­dom­ness, how­ever, in no way im­plies that cre­ative­
think­ing does not in­volve a great deal of “trial-and -er­ror” men­tal ma­nipu­la­
tion, though it is not at all ran­dom . The prod­ucts that emerge are then crit­i­cal­ly
sifted in light of the cre­ator’s aim. The in­di­vi­d­u­als in whom this men­tal ma­nipu­la­tion pro­cess turns out to be truly cre­ative most of­ten are those who
are rel­a­tively rich in each of three sources of var­i­ance in cre­ativity: (1) ideation­al
flu en cy, or the ca­pac­ity to tap a flow of rele­vant ideas, them es, or images, and to
play with them , also known as “brain­storm­ing”; (2) what Eysenck (1995) has
termed the in­di­vi­d­u­als’ rele­vance hori­zon ; that is, the range or va­ri­ety of ele­
m ents, ideas, and as­so­ci­a­tions that seem rele­vant to the prob­lem (cre­ativi­ty­
in­volves a wide rele­vance hori­zon); and (3) sus­pen­sion of crit­i­cal ju d g m en t.
Creative per­sons are in­tel­lec­tu­ally high risk tak­ers. They are not afraid of
zany ideas and can hold the in­hi­bi­tions of self-crit­i­cism tem­porar­ily in abey­
ance. Both Dar­win and Freud men­tioned their gullibil­ity and re­cep­tive­ness to­
highly spec­u­la­tive ideas and be­lieved that these traits were prob­a­bly charac­

ter­is­tic of cre­ative thinkers in gen­eral. Dar­win oc­ca­sion­ally performed what
he called “fool’s ex­per­i­ments,” try­ing out im­prob­a­ble ideas that most peo­ple­
would have in­stantly dis­missed as fool­ish. Fran­cis Crick once told me that Linus
Paul­ing’s sci­en­tific ideas turned out to be wrong about 80 per­cent of the time,
but the other 20 per­cent fi­nally proved to be so im­por­tant that it would be a
mis­take to ig­nore any of his hunches.
I once asked an­other No­bel Prize win­ner, William Shock­ley, whose cre­
ac­tivity re­sulted in about a hun­dred patented in­ven­tions in elec­tron­ics, what he
con­sid­ered the main fac­tors in­volved in his suc­cess. He said there were two: (1)
he had an abil­ity to gen­er­ate, with re­spect to any given prob­lem , a good many­
hy­pothe­ses, with lit­tle ini­tial con­straint by pre­vi­ous knowl­edge as to their­
plau­si­bil­ity or fea­si­bil­ity; and (2) he worked much harder than most peo­ple­
would at try­ing to figure out how a zany idea might be shaped into some­thing
tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble. Some of the ideas that even­tu­ally proved most fruit­ful, he­
said, were even a phys­i­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity in their ini­tial con­cep­tion. For that
very rea­son, most knowl­edge­able peo­ple would have dis­missed such un­re­al­is­ti­c
ideas im­me­di­ately, be­fore search­ing their imag­i­na­tions for trans­for­ma­tion­s
that might make them fea­si­ble.
Some cre­ative ge­niuses, at least in the arts, seem to work in the op­po­site­
di­rec­tion from that de­scribed by Shock­ley. That is, they be­gin by pro­duc­ing­
some­thing fairly con­ven­tional, or even trite, and then set about to im­pose nov­el­
dis­tor­tions, re­shap­ing it in ways deemed cre­ative. I re­call a demon­stra­tion of
this by Leonard Bern­stein, in which he com­pared the early drafts of Beethoven’s
Fifth Sym­phony with the fi­nal ver­sion we know to­day. The first draft was a
re­mark­ably rou­tine-sound­ing piece, scarcely sug­gest­ing the fa­mil­iar qual­ities of
Beethoven’s ge­nius. It was more on a par with the works com posed by his
me­diocre con­tem­po­raries, now long for­got­ten. But then two pro­cesses took
hold: (1) a lot of “doc­tor­ing,” which in­tro­duced what for that time were sur­
pris­ing twists and turns in the har­monies and rhythms, along with an as­cetic
purifi­ca­tion, and (2) a dras­tic prun­ing and sim­plifi­ca­tion of the or­ches­tral score
to rid it com­pletely of all the “unessen­tial” notes in the har­monic tex­ture, all the
“el­e­gant vari­a­tions” of rhythm , and any sug­ges­tion of the kind of fili­gree orna­
men­ta­tion that was so com­mon in the works of his con­tem­po­raries. This­
re­sulted in a starkly pow­er­ful, taut, and uniquely in­evitable-sound­ing mas­ter­
piece, which, peo­ple now say, only Beethoven could have writ­ten. But when
Beethoven’s sym­phonies were first performed, they sounded so shock­ingly­
de­viant from the pre­vailing aes­thetic stan­dards that lead­ing crit­ics de­clared him­
ripe for a mad­house.
One can see a similar pro­cess of artis­tic dis­tor­tion in a fas­ci­nat­ing mo­tion­

pic­ture us­ing time-lapse pho­tog­ra­phy of Pi­casso at work ( The Pi­casso Mys­tery).
He usu­ally be­gin by sketch­ing some­thing quite or­di­nary—for ex­am­ple, a com ­
pletely re­al­is­tic horse. Then he would be­gin dis­tort­ing the figure this way and
that, re­peat­edly paint­ing over what he had just painted and im­pos­ing fur­ther,
of­ten fan­tas­tic, dis­tor­tions. In one in­stance, this pro­cess re­sulted in such an
ut­terly hope­less mess that Pi­casso Fi­nally tossed the can­vas aside, with a re­mark
to the effect of “Now I see how it should go.” Then, tak­ing a clean can­vas, he
worked quickly, with bold, deft strokes of his paint­brush, and there sud­den­ly­
took shape the strangely dis­torted figure Pi­casso ap­par­ently had been striv­ing
for. Thus he achieved the startling aes­thetic im­pact typ­i­cal of Pi­casso’s art.
It is ex­actly this kind of artis­tic dis­tor­tion of per­cep­tion that is never seen
in the pro­duc­tions of the most ex­tremely gifted idiot sa­vants, whose draw­ing­s
often are in­cred­ibly pho­to­graphic, yet are never con­sid­ered works of artis­tic­
ge­nius. The great­est artists prob­a­bly have a com­pa­rable gift for re­al­is­tic draw­
ing, but their ge­nius leads them well be­yond such pho­to­graphic per­cep­tion.
Other ex­am­ples of dis­tor­tion are found in the recorded perfor­mances of
the great­est con­duc­tors and in­stru­men­tal­ists, the re-cre­ative ge­niuses, such as
Toscan­ini and Furt­wan­gler, Paderewski and Kreisler. Such artists are not pri­mar­ily dis­t­in­guished from rou­tine prac­ti­tion­ers by their tech­ni­cal skill or vir­tu­os­ity (though these are in­deed im­pres­sive), but by the sub­tle dis­tor­tions,
within fairly nar­row limits, of rhythm , pitch, phras­ing, and the like, that they­
im­pose, con­sciously or un­con­sciously, on the works they perform . Differ­ences­
be­tween the great­est perform­ers are eas­ily rec­og­niz­able by these “sig­na­tures.”
But oth­ers’ at­tempts to imi­tate these idiosyn­cratic dis­tor­tions are never sub­tle
e­nough or con­sis­tent enough to es­cape de­tec­tion as inau­then­tic; in fact, they
usu­ally amount to car­i­ca­tures.


What is the wellspring of the ba­sic el­e­ments of cre­ativity listed above—idea­
tional fluency, a wide rele­vance hori­zon, the sus­pen­sion of in­hibit­ing self­
crit­i­cism , and the novel dis­tor­tion of or­di­nary per­cep­tion and thought? All of
these fea­tures, when taken to an ex­treme de­gree, are char­ac­ter­is­tic of psy­chosis.
The men­tal and emo­tional di­s­or­ga­ni­za­tion of clini­cal psy­chosis is, how­ever,

gen­er­ally too dis­abling to perm it gen­uinely cre­ative or pro­duc­tive work, espe­
cially in the un­com­pen­sated in­di­vi­d­ual. Eysenck, how­ever, has iden­ti­fied a trait,
or di­men­sion of per­son­al­ity, term ed psy­choti­cism , which can be as­sessed by
means of the Eysenck Per­son­al­ity Ques­tion­naire (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1991).
Trait psy­choti­cism , it must be em­pha­sized, does not im­ply the psy­chi­a­tric­

di­ag­no­sis of psy­chosis, but only the pre­dis­po­si­tion or po­ten­tial for the de­velop­
m ent of psy­chosis (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1976). In many cre­ative ge­niuses, this
po­ten­tial for ac­tual psy­chosis is usu­ally buffered and held in check by cer­tain­
other traits, such as a high de­gree of ego strength. Trait psy­choti­cism is a
con­stel­la­tion of char­ac­ter­is­tics that per­sons may show to vary­ing de­grees; such­
per­sons may be ag­gres­sive, cold, ego­cen­tric, im per­sonal, im­pul­sive, an­ti­so­cial,
un­em­pa­thetic, tough-minded, and cre­ative. This is not a charm ing pic­ture of­
ge­nius, per­haps, but a read­ing of the bi­ogra­phies of some of the world’s most­
fa­mous ge­niuses at­tests to its ve­rac­ity.
By and large, ge­niuses are quite an odd lot by or­di­nary stan­dards. Their­
spouses, chil­dren, and close friends are usu­ally not gen­er­ous in their per­son­al
rec­ol­lec­tions, aside from mar­veling at the ac­com­plish­ments for which the per­
son is ac­claimed a ge­nius. Often the per­sonal ec­cen­tric­i­ties rem ain long hid­den­
from the pub­lic. Beethoven’s first bi­og­ra­pher, for ex­am­ple, is known to have
de­stroyed some of Beethoven’s let­ters and con­ver­sa­tion books, pre­sum­ably­
be­cause they re­vealed a pet­ti­ness and mean­ness of char­ac­ter that seemed ut­ter­ly­
in­con­sis­tent with the sub­lime no­bil­ity of Beethoven’s mu­sic. Richard Wag­ner’s
horren­dous char­ac­ter is leg­endary. He dis­played vir­tu­ally all of the afore­men­
tioned fea­tures of trait psy­choti­cism to a high de­gree and, to make mat­ter­s
worse, was also neu­rotic.
Trait psy­choti­cism is hy­poth­e­sized as a key con­di­tion in Eysenck’s (1995)
the­ory of cre­ativity. Var­i­ous the­o­rists have also men­tioned other char­ac­ter­is­tics,
but some of these, such as self-con­fi­dence, in­de­pen­dence, origi­nal­ity, and n o n ­
con­for­mity, to name a few, might well stem from trait psy­choti­cism. (See
Jack­son & Rush­ton, 1987, for re­views of the per­son­al­ity ori­gins of pro­duc­tivity
and cre­ativity.)


A startling corol­lary of the mul­ti­plica­tive model of ex­cep­tional achieve­ment is­
best stated in the form of a gen­eral law. This is Price’s Law, which says that if K
per­sons have made a to­tal of N countable con­tri­bu­tions in a par­tic­u­lar field,
then N /​2 of the con­tri­bu­tions will be at­tributable to

(Price, 1963). Hence,

as the to­tal num­ber of work­ers ( K ) in a dis­ci­pline in­creases, the ra­tio VTc/​ K
shrinks, in­creas­ing the elitism of the ma­jor con­trib­u­tors. This law, like any
other, only holds true within cer­tain limits. But within fairly ho­mo­ge­neous­
dis­ci­plines, Price’s Law seems to hold up quite well for in­dices of pro­duc­tivity—
for ex­am­ple, in math, the em­piri­cal sci­ences, mu­si­cal com­po­si­tion, and the
fre­quency of perfor­mance of mu­si­cal works. More­over, there is a high rank-

or­der re­la­tion­ship be­tween sheer pro­duc­tivity and var­i­ous in­dices of the im ­
por­tance of a con­trib­u­tor’s work, such as the fre­quency and half-life of scien­
tific cita­tions, and the fre­quency of perfor­mance and stay­ing power of mu­si­cal­
com po­si­tions in the con­cert reper­toire. (Con­sider such con­trast­ing fa­mous­
con­tem­po­raries as Mozart and Salieri; Beethoven and Hum­mel; and Wag­ner
and Meyer­beer.)
If pro­duc­tivity and im­por­tance could be suit­ably scaled, how­ever, I would
i­mag­ine that the cor­re­la­tion be­tween them would show a scat­ter-di­a­gram of the
“twisted pear” va­ri­ety (Fisher, 1959). That is, high pro­duc­tivity and triv­ial­it­y
are more fre­quently as­so­ci­ated than low pro­duc­tivity and high im­por­tance. As
a rule, the great­est cre­ative ge­niuses in ev­ery field are as­tound­ingly pro­lific,
al­though, with­out ex­cep­tion, they have also pro­duced their share of trivia.
(Con­sider Beethoven’s King Stephen Over­ture and Wag­ner’s “United States
Cen­ten­nial M arch,” to say noth­ing of his ten pub­lished vol­umes of largely triv­
ial prose writ­ings—all in­cred­ible con­trasts to these com­posers’ great­est works.)
But such seem­ingly un­nec­es­sary trivia from such ge­niuses is prob­a­bly the
inevitable efflu­via of the men­tal en­ergy with­out which their great­est works
would not have come into be­ing. On the other hand, high pro­duc­tivity is
prob­a­bly much more com­mon than great im­por­tance, and high pro­duc­tivi­ty
per se is no guaran­tee of the im­por­tance of what is pro­duced. The “twist­ed­
pear” re­la­tion­ship sug­gests that high pro­duc­tivity is a nec­es­sary but not suffi­
cient con­di­tion for mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions of im­por­tance in any field. The im ­
por­tance fac­tor, how­ever, de­pends on cre­ativity—cer­tainly an elu­sive at­tribute.
What might be the ba­sis of in­di­vi­d­ual differ­ences in pro­duc­tivity? The­
word mo­ti­va­tion im­me­di­ately comes to mind, but it ex­plains lit­tle and al­so
seems too in­ten­tional and self-willed to fill the bill. When one reads about­
fa­mous cre­ative ge­niuses one finds that, al­though they may oc­ca­sion­ally have to
force them­selves to work, they can­not will them­selves to be ob­sessed by the­
sub­ject of their work. Their ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive men­tal ac­tivity in a par­tic­u­lar­
sphere is vir­tu­ally be­yond con­scious con­trol. I can re­call three amus­ing exam ­
ples of this, and they all in­volve din­ner par­ties. Isaac New­ton went down to the­
cel­lar to fetch some wine for his guests and, while filling a flagon, wrote a
m­ath­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion with his finger on the dust of the wine keg. After quite a
long tim e had passed, his guests be­gan to worry that he might have had an
ac­ci­dent, and they went down to the cel­lar. There was New­ton, en­grossed in his­
math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las, hav­ing com­pletely for­got­ten that he was host­ing a
d­in­ner party.
My sec­ond ex­am­ple in­volves Richard Wag­ner. Wag­ner, while his guests as­
sem­bled for din­ner, sud­denly took leave of them and dashed up­stairs. Alarmed

that some­thing was wrong, his wife rushed to his room . Wag­ner ex­claimed,
“I’m do­ing it!”—their agreed sig­nal that she was not to dis­turb him un­der any­
cir­cum­stances be­cause some new mu­si­cal idea was flood­ing his brain and­
would have to work it­self out be­fore he could be so­cia­ble again. He had a
phe­nom­e­nal m em ory for mu­si­cal ideas that spon­ta­neously sur­faced, and could­
post­pone writ­ing them down un­til it was con­ve­nient, a te­dious task he referred
to not as com pos­ing but as merely “copy­ing” the mu­sic in his mind’s ear.
Then there is the story of Ar­turo Toscan­ini host­ing a din­ner party at which
he was in­ex­pli­ca­bly mo­rose and tac­i­turn, just as he had been all that day and the­
day be­fore. Sud­denly he got up from the din­ner table and hur­ried to his study;
he re­turned af­ter sev­eral min­utes beam ing joyfully and hold­ing up the score of
Brahms’s First Sym­phony (which he was re­hears­ing that week for the N BC
Sym­phony broad­cast the fol­low­ing Sun­day). Point­ing to a pas­sage in the first­
move­ment that had never pleased him in past perfor­mances, he ex­claimed that
it had sud­denly dawned on him pre­cisely what Brahm s had in­tended at this
trou­ble­some point. In this pas­sage, which never sounds “clean” when played
ex­actly as writ­ten, Toscan­ini slightly al­tered the score to clar­ify the or­ches­tral­
tex­ture. He always in­sisted that his al­ter­a­tions were only the com­poser’s true
in­ten­tion. But few would com­plain about his “delu­sions”; as Puc­cini on­ce
re­marked, “Toscan­ini doesn’t play my mu­sic as I wrote it, but as I dreamed it.”

Men­tal En­er­gy
Pro­duc­tivity im­plies ac­tual pro­duc­tion or ob­jec­tive achieve­ment. For the psy­cholog­i­cal ba­sis of in­tel­lec­tual pro­duc­tivity in the broad­est sense, we need a

con­struct that could be la­beled m en tal en­ergy. This term should not be co n ­
fused with Spear­man’s g (for gen­eral in­tel­li­gence). Spear­man’s the­ory of psy­
chom et­ric g as “men­tal en­ergy” is a failed hy­poth­e­sis and has been sup­plant­ed
by bet­ter ex­pla­na­tions of g based on the con­cept of neu­ral effi­ciency (Jensen,
1993). The en­ergy con­struct I have in mind refers to some­thing quite differ­ent­
from cog­ni­tive abil­ity. It is more akin to cor­ti­cal arousal or ac­ti­va­tion, as if by a
s­tim­u­lant drug, but in this case an en­doge­nous stim­u­lant. Pre­cisely what it­
con­sists of is un­known, but it might well in­volve brain and body chem­istry.
One clue was sug­gested by Have­lock Ellis (1 904) in A Study of Bri­tish
Ge­nius. Ellis noted a much higher than av­er­age rate of gout in the em­i­nent
sub­jects of his study; gout is as­so­ci­ated with high lev­els of uric acid in the blood.
So later in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­gan look­ing for be­hav­ioral cor­re­lates of serum urate
level (SU L), and there are now dozens of stud­ies on this topic (re­viewed in­
Jensen & Sinha, 1993). They show that SUL is only slightly cor­re­lated with IQ,
but is more highly cor­re­lated with achieve­ment and pro­duc­tivity. For in­stance,

among high school stu­dents there is a re­la­tion be­tween scholas­tic achieve­men­t
and SUL, even con­trol­ling for IQ (Kasl, Brooks, & Rodgers, 1970). The “over­
achiev­ers” had higher SUL rat­ings, on av­er­age. Another study found a cor­rela­
tion of + .3 7 be­tween SUL rat­ings and the pub­li­ca­tion rates of uni­ver­sity pro­
fes­sors (Muel­ler & French, 1974).
Why should there be such a re­la­tion­ship? The most plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion­
seems to be that the molec­u­lar struc­ture of uric acid is nearly the same as that of­
caf­feine, and there­fore it acts as a brain stim­u­lant. Its more or less con­stant­
p­res­ence in the brain, al­though af­fect­ing mea­sured abil­ity only slightly, con­sid­
er­ably height­ens cor­ti­cal arousal and in­creases men­tal ac­tivity. There are proba­
bly a num­ber of other en­doge­nous stim­u­lants and re­in­forcers of pro­duc­tive­
be­hav­ior (such as the en­dor­phins) whose syn­er­gis­tic effects are the ba­sis of
what is here called men­tal en­ergy. I sug­gest that this en­ergy, com­bined with very­
high f o r an ex­cep­tional tal­ent, re­sults in high in­tel­lec­tual or artis­tic pro­duc­tiv­
ity. In­clude trait psy­choti­cism with its cre­ative com­po­nent in this syn­er­gis­tic
mix­ture and you have the es­sen­tial mak­ings of ge­nius.
To sum­ma­rize:
Ge­nius = High Abil­ity X High Pro­duc­tivity AND High Creativity.

The the­o­ret­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of these three in­gre­di­ents are:
—Abil­ity = g = effi­ciency of in­for­ma­tion pro­cess­ing
—Pro­duc­tivity = en­doge­nous cor­ti­cal stim u la­tion
—Creativity = trait psychoticism

Other Per­son­al­ity Correlates

There are un­doubt­edly other per­son­al­ity cor­re­lates of ge­nius, al­though some of
them may only re­flect the more fun­da­men­tal vari­ables in the for­mula given­
above. The bi­ogra­phies of m any ge­niuses in­di­cate that, from an early age, the­y
are char­ac­ter­ized by great sen­si­tivity to their ex­pe­riences (es­pe­cially those of a
cog­ni­tive na­ture), the de­vel­op­ment of un­usu­ally strong and long-term in­ter­ests
(of­ten man­i­fested as un­usual or idiosyn­cratic hob­bies or pro­jects), cu­ri­os­ity
and ex­plo­ra­tory be­hav­ior, a strong de­sire to ex­cel in their own pur­suits, th eo­
ret­i­cal and aes­thetic val­ues, and a high de­gree of self-dis­ci­pline in ac­quiring
nec­es­sary skills (MacKin­non, 1962).
The de­vel­op­ment of ex­pert-level knowl­edge and skill is es­sen­tial for any­
im­por­tant achieve­ment (Rabinow­itz & Glaser, 1985). A high level of ex­per­ti­se

in­volves the au­tom­a­ti­za­tion of a host of spe­cial skills and cog­ni­tive rou­tines.
Au­tom­a­ti­za­tion com es about only as a re­sult of an im­mense amount of prac­
tice (Jensen, 1990; Walberg, 1988). Most peo­ple can scarcely imag­ine (an­d
are prob­a­bly in­ca­pable of) the ex­traor­di­nary amount of prac­tice that is re­
quired for ge­nius-qual­ity perfor­mance, even for such a prodi­gious ge­nius as
In their self-as­signed tasks, ge­niuses are not only per­sis­tent but also re­
mark­ably able learn­ers. Ra­manu­jan, for ex­am­ple, dis­liked school and played
tru­ant to work on math prob­lems be­yond the level of any­thing he was offered at
school. Wag­ner fre­quently played tru­ant so he could de­vote his whole day to
study­ing the or­ches­tral scores of Beethoven. Fran­cis Gal­ton, with an es­ti­mat­ed­
child­hood IQ of around 200 and an ac­knowl­edged ge­nius in adult­hood, abso­
lutely hated the frus­tra­tions of school and pleaded with his par­ents to let him
quit. Similar ex­am­ples are le­gion in the ac­counts of ge­niuses.
In read­ing about ge­niuses, I con­sis­tently find one other im­por­tant fac­tor
that must be added to the com­pos­ite I have de­scribed so far. It is a fac­tor re­lat­ed
to the di­rec­tion of per­sonal am­bi­tion and the per­sis­tence of effort. This fac­tor­
chan­nels and fo­cuses the in­di­vi­d­ual’s men­tal en­ergy; it might be de­scribed best
as per­sonal ideals or val­ues. Th­ese may be artis­tic, aes­thetic, sci­en­tific, the­o­ret­
ical, philo­soph­i­cal, re­li­gious, poli­ti­cal, so­cial, eco­nomic, or moral val­ues, or­
some­thing idiosyn­cratic. In per­sons of ge­nius, es­pe­cially, this “value fac­tor”
seems ab­solutely to dom­i­nate their self-con­cept, and it is not mun­dane. Peo­ple
are of­ten puz­zled by what they per­ceive as the ge­nius’s self-sac­ri­fice and of­ten
e­go­cen­tric in­differ­ence to the needs of oth­ers. But the ge­nius’s value sys­tem, at
the core of his or her self-con­cept, is hardly ever sac­ri­ficed for the kind of­
mun­dane plea­sures and uni­mag­i­na­tive goals com m only val­ued by or­di­nary
per­sons. Act­ing on their own val­ues—per­haps one should say act­ing out their­
self-images—is a no­table fea­ture of fa­mous ge­niuses.

Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Ge­nius: Some Conclusions

Although this chap­ter is not meant to provide an ex­haus­tive re­view of the­
liter­a­ture on ge­niuses and highly cre­ative in­di­vi­d­u­als, it has raised some con­sis­
tent them es that might be wor­thy of sci­en­tific study. I pro­pose that ge­nius is
a mul­ti­plica­tive effect of high abil­ity, pro­duc­tivity, and cre­ativity. More­over,
many of the per­son­al­ity traits as­so­ci­ated with ge­nius can be cap­tured by the­
la­bel “psy­choti­cism.” Although ge­niuses may have a pre­dis­po­si­tion to­ward such
a di­s­or­der, they are buffered by a high de­gree of ego strength and in­tel­li­gence. A
num­ber of the re­main­ing per­son­al­ity cor­re­lates of ge­nius may best be cap­tured
by the idea that ge­nius rep­re­sents an act­ing-out of its very essence.

Gift­ed­ness and Ge­nius: Im­por­tant Differ­ences
Although gift­ed­ness (ex­cep­tional men­tal abil­ity or out­stand­ing tal­ent) is a
thresh­old trait for the emer­gence of ge­nius, gift­ed­ness and ge­nius do seem to be­
cru­cially differ­ent phe­nom­ena, not sim­ply differ­ent points on a con­tinuum . It
has even been sug­gested that gift­ed­ness is in the or­thog­o­nal plane to ge­nius.
Thomas Mann (1 9 4 7 ), in his pen­e­trat­ing and in­sight­ful study of Richard Wag­
ner’s ge­nius, for in­stance, makes the startling point that Wag­ner was not a
mu­si­cal prodigy and did not even seem par­tic­u­larly tal­ented, in mu­sic or in
any­thing else for that mat­ter, com­pared to many lesser com­posers and po­ets.
He was never skil­led at play­ing any mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, and his se­ri­ous­ly
fo­cused in­ter­est in mu­sic be­gan much later than it does for most mu­si­ci­ans. Yet
M ann is awed by Wag­ner’s achieve­ments as one of the world’s stu­pen­dous
cre­ative ge­niuses, whose ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­no­va­tive mas­ter­pieces and their ines­
ca­pa­ble in­fluence on later com­posers place him among the sur­pass­ing elite in­
the his­tory of mu­sic, in the class with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
It is in­ter­est­ing to note the words used by M ann in ex­plain­ing what he cal­ls
Wag­ner’s “vast ge­nius”; they are not “gift­ed­ness” or “tal­ent,” but “in­tel­li­gence”
and “will.” It is the sec­ond word here that strikes m e as most tel­ling. After all, a
high level of in­tel­li­gence is what we mean by “gifted,” and Wag­ner was in­deed­
most prob­a­bly gifted in that sense. His child­hood IQ was around 140, as­
es­ti­mated by Cather­ine Cox (1 9 2 6 ) in her clas­sic, al­though some­what flawed,
study of three hun­dred his­toric ge­niuses. Yet that level of IQ is fairly com ­
m on place on uni­ver­sity cam­puses.
We do not have to dis­cuss such an awe­some level of ge­nius as Wag­ner’s,
how­ever, to rec­og­nize that gar­den-va­ri­ety out­stand­ing achieve­ment, to which
gift­ed­ness is gen­er­ally an ac­com­pani­ment, is not so highly cor­re­lated with the
p­sy­cho­me­t­ric and scholas­tic in­dices of gift­ed­ness as many peo­ple, even psy­chol­
ogists, might ex­pect. At an­other sym­po­sium re­lated to this topic, con­duct­ed­
more than twenty years ago, one of the speak­ers, who ap­par­ently had nev­er­
heard of statis­ti­cal re­gres­sion, ex­pressed fire alarm at the ob­ser­va­tion that far­
too many stu­dents who scored above the 99th per­centile on IQ tests did not­
turn out, as adults, among those at the top of the dis­tri­bu­tion of rec­og­nized­
in­tel­lec­tual achieve­ments. He was dis­mayed at many of the rather or­di­nary­
oc­cu­pa­tions and re­spectable but hardly im­pres­sive ac­com­plish­ments dis­played
in midlife by the ma­jor­ity of the highly gifted stu­dents in his sur­vey. A sig­nifi­
can’t num­ber of stu­dents who had tested con­sid­er­ably lower, only in the top
quar­tile, did about as well in life as many of the gifted. The speaker said the
e­d­u­ca­tional sys­tem was to blame for not prop­erly cul­ti­vat­ing gifted stu­dents. If

they were so bright, should they not have been high achiev­ers? After all, their
IQs were well within the range of the es­ti­mated child­hood IQs of the three­
hun­dred his­tor­i­cally em­i­nent ge­niuses in C ox’s (1 9 2 6 ) study. Although ed­uca­
tion is dis­cussed in more de­tail be­low, the point here is that gift­ed­ness does no­t
as­sure ex­cep­tional achieve­ment; it is only a nec­es­sary con­di­tion.
To re­in­force this point, I offer an ad­di­tional ex­am­ple that oc­curred on the
v­ery day I sat down to write this chap­ter. O n that day I re­ceived a let­ter from­
some­one I had never met, though I knew he was an em­i­nent pro­fes­sor of
bio­physics. He had read some­thing I wrote con­cern­ing IQ as a pre­dic­tor of
achieve­ment, but he was to­tally un­aware of the pre­sent work. The co­in­ci­den­ce
is that my cor­re­spon­dent posed the very ques­tion that is cen­tral to my theme.
He wrote;

I have felt for a long time that IQ , how­ever defined, is only loosely re­lated to men ­
tal achieve­ment. Over the years I have bumped into a fair nu m ber of MENSA
peo­ple. As a group, they seem to be dilet­tantes seek­ing titil­la­tion bu t seem un­able
to think crit­i­cally or deeply. They have a lot of mo­ti­va­tion for in­tel­lec­tual play but­
lit­tle for do­ing any­thing worth­while. One gets the feel­ing that brains were waste­d
on them . So, what is it that makes an in­tel­li­gently pro­duc­tive per­son?

This is not an un­com m on ob­ser­va­tion, and I have even heard it ex­pressed by
m em bers of MENSA. It is one of their self-per­ceived prob­lem s, one for which­
some have offered the­o­ries or ra­tio­nal­iza­tions. The most typ­i­cal is that they are
so gifted that too many sub­jects at­tract their in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est and they can­
n­ever com­mit them­selves to any par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est. It could also be that indi­
vi­d­u­als drawn to­ward m em bership in M ENSA are a se­lec­tive sub­set of the
gifted pop­u­la­tion, in­di­vi­d­u­als lack­ing in fo­cus. After all, most highly gifte­d­
in­di­vi­d­u­als do not join MENSA.
We must, then, con­sider some of the ways in which achieved em en t con­trasts
with abil­ity if we are to make any head­way in un­der­stand­ing the dis­tinc­tion­
be­tween gift­ed­ness (i.e., mainly high g or spe­cial abil­ities) and ge­nius. Ge­nius­
in­volves ac­tual achieve­ment and cre­ativity. Each of these char­ac­ter­is­tics is a
quan­ti­ta­tive vari­able. The con­cept of ge­nius gen­er­ally ap­plies only when both of
these vari­ables char­ac­ter­ize ac­com­plish­ments at some ex­traor­di­nary so­cial­ly
rec­og­nized level. In­di­vi­d­ual differ­ences in countable units of achieve­ment, un­
like mea­sures of abil­ity, are not nor­mally dis­tributed, but have a very pos­i­tive­ly
skewed dis­tri­bu­tion, re­sem­bling the so-called J-curve. For ex­am­ple, the num ­
ber of pub­li­ca­tions of mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Psy­cholog­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, of
re­search sci­en­tists, and of aca­demi­ci­ans in gen­eral, the num­ber of patents
of in­ven­tors, the num­ber of com­po­si­tions of com­posers, or the fre­quency of­

com­posers’ works in the con­cert reper­toire all show the same J-curve. M ore­
over, in ev­ery case, the J-curve can be nor­mal­ized by a log­a­r­ith­mic trans­form a­
tion. This strik­ing phe­nomenon is con­sis­tent with a mul­ti­plica­tive model of
achieve­ment, as de­vel­oped and dis­cussed above. That is, ex­cep­tional achieve­
m ent is a mul­ti­plica­tive func­tion of a num­ber of differ­ent traits, each of which­
may be nor­mally dis­tributed, but which in com­bi­na­tion are so syn­er­gis­tic as to
skew the re­sult­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of achieve­ment. Thereby, an ex­tremely ex­tend­ed
up­per tail of ex­cep­tional achieve­ment is pro­duced. Most ge­niuses are found far
out in this tail.
The mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of sev­eral nor­mally dis­tributed vari­ables yields, there­
fore, a highly skewed dis­tri­bu­tion. In such a dis­tri­bu­tion, the mean is close to
the bot­tom and the mode gen­er­ally is the bot­tom . For any vari­able mea­sured on
a ra­tio scale, there­fore, the dis­tance be­tween the me­dian and the 99th per­centile
is much smaller for a nor­mally dis­tributed vari­able, such as abil­ity, than for a
markedly skewed vari­able, such as pro­duc­tivity. In­deed, this ac­cords well with­
sub­jec­tive im­pres­sions: the range of in­di­vi­d­ual differ­ences in abil­ity (g or fluid­
in­tel­li­gence) above the me­dian level does not seem nearly so as­tound­ing as the­
above-me­dian range of pro­duc­tivity or achieve­ment.
In con­clu­sion, gift­ed­ness, a nor­mally dis­tributed vari­able, is a pre­req­ui­site­
for the de­vel­op­ment of ge­nius. When it in­ter­acts with a num­ber of other crit­i­cal
char­ac­ter­is­tics, which also are nor­mally dis­tributed, ex­cep­tional achieve­ment is
pro­duced. Ex­cep­tional achieve­ment, how­ever, is a vari­able that is no longer­
norm al; it is highly skewed, with ge­nius found at the tip of the tail.

Ed­u­ca­tional Implications

At this point in my highly spec­u­la­tive grop­ing to un­der­stand the na­ture of­
ge­nius as differ­en­ti­ated from gift­ed­ness, I should like to make some prac­ti­cal
recom­men­da­tions. First, I would not con­sider try­ing to se­lect gifted young­ster­s
ex­plic­itly with the aim of dis­cov­er­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing fu­ture ge­niuses. Ju­li­an
S­tan­ley’s de­ci­sion (Stan­ley, 1977) to se­lect ex­plic­itly for math­e­mat­i­cal gifted­
ness—to choose youths who, in Stan­ley’s words, “rea­son ex­cep­tion­ally well­
math­e­mat­i­cally”—was an ad­mirably sound and wise de­ci­sion from a prac­ti­cal
and so­cially pro­duc­tive stand­point. The la­tent traits in­volved in ex­cep­tional­
math­e­mat­i­cal rea­son­ing abil­ity are mainly high g plus high math tal­ent (inde­
pen­dent of g). Th­ese traits are no guaran­tee of high pro­duc­tivity, much less of­
ge­nius. But the thresh­old na­ture of g and m ath tal­ent is so cru­cial to ex­cel­ling in­
math and the quan­ti­ta­tive sci­ences that we can be fairly cer­tain that most of the­
p­ro­duc­tive math­e­mat­i­ci­ans and sci­en­tists, as well as the in­evitably few ge­niuses,

will com e from that seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion of which the SM PY stu­dents are
a sam­ple. In­deed, in Don­ald MacKin­non’s (1962) well-known study of lar­ge
num­bers of cre­ative writ­ers, math­e­mat­i­ci­ans, and ar­chi­tects (cer­tainly none of
them a Shake­speare, Gauss, or Michelan­gelo), the very bot­tom of the range of
in­tel­li­gence-test scores in the whole sam­ple was at about the 75th per­centile
of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and the mean was at the 98th per­centile (MacKin­non
8c Hall, 1972).
How­ever, it might even­tu­ally be prof­itable for re­searchers to con­sid­er­
search­ing be­yond high abil­ity per se and iden­tify per­son­al­ity in­dices that al­so
w­ill aid in the pre­dic­tion of ex­cep­tional achieve­ment. The pro­por­tion of those
gifted youths se­lected for spe­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties who are most apt to be pro­duc­tive pro­fes­sion­als in their later ca­reers would thereby be in­creased. As­sum­ing
that high achieve­ment and pro­duc­tivity can be pre­dicted at all, over and above­
what our usual tests of abil­ity can pre­dict, it would take ex­ten­sive re­search­
in­deed to dis­cover suffi­ciently valid pre­dic­tors to jus­tify their use in this way.
Lu­bin­ski and Ben­bow (1992) have pre­sented ev­i­dence that a “the­o­ret­i­cal orien­
tation,” as mea­sured by the All­port, Ver­non, and Lindzey Study of Values,
might be just such a vari­able for sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines.


Cer­tainly, the ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ti­va­tion of in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted youths has ne­ver­
been more im­por­tant than it is to­day, and its im­por­tance will con­tinue to grow
as we move into the next cen­tury. The preser­va­tion and ad­vance­ment of civi­
lized so­ciety will re­quire that an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion have a
high level of ed­u­cated in­tel­li­gence in sci­ence, en­g­ineer­ing, and tech­nol­ogy.
Su­pe­rior in­tel­lec­tual tal­ent will be at a pre­mium . Prob­a­bly there will always be
only rel­a­tively few ge­niuses, even among all per­sons iden­ti­fied as gifted. Yet thi­s
is not cause for con­cern. For any so­ciety to benefit from the fruits of ge­nius­
re­quires the efforts of a great many gifted per­sons who have ac­quired high lev­el­s
of knowl­edge and skill. For ex­am­ple, it takes about three hun­dred ex­cep­tion­al­ly­
tal­ented and highly ac­com­plished mu­si­ci­ans, singers, set de­sign­ers, artists,
light­ing di­rec­tors, and stage di­rec­tors, be­sides many stage­hands, to put on a
pro­duc­tion of The Ring of the Ni­belung, an artis­tic cre­ation of sur­pass­ing
ge­nius. Were it not for the con­certed efforts of these perform­ers, the score of
Wag­ner’s colos­sal work would lie idle. The same is true, but on a much larg­er­
scale, in mod­ern sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. The in­sti­gat­ing cre­ative ideas are­
sel­dom ac­tu­al­ized for the benefit of so­ciety with­out the backup and fol­low through en­deav­ors of a great many gifted and ac­com­plished per­sons. Thus, a na­tion’s most im­por­tant re­source is the level of ed­u­cated in­tel­li­gence in it­s
pop­u­la­tion; it de­ter­mines the qual­ity of life. It is im­per­a­tive for so­ciety to
cul­ti­vate all the high abil­ity that can pos­si­bly be found, wher­ever it can be­


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