Negative attitudes toward gifted–an instinct to protect social fabric?

iStock_000016363496XSmallNegative attitudes toward intellectually gifted students are common. Yet, this social hostility does not exist for athletically or artistically gifted students, says an evolutionary psychology study in Gifted Child Quarterly..

“It is deeply ironic that students who have the potential to learn most easily and swiftly in school are often regarded by teachers with qualified enthusiasm at best while, if the rhetoric of some teacher unions is representative of the views of their members, gifted students can even be regarded with open hostility. It seems reasonable to ask why, the researchers say.

Deep roots

The root of these negative attitudes toward academically gifted students may go deep, even to the beginnings of language, the researchers write. The practice of athletic or musical gifts is seen as a form of social compliance in that the talent results in the enjoyment of the community, the authors write. High intellectual ability, however, may be seen as a form of social noncompliance in that it mostly benefits the individual student and may be seen as disruptive of the social fabric.

The researchers designed a study to test their hypothesis that negative attitudes toward the intellectually gifted are rooted in fears that they have the potential to affect, manipulate, exploit and disrupt social relationships. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, these negative attitudes toward the intellectually gifted probably could be traced all the way back to the very beginnings of language when those who had a language facility had the unfair advantage of being very persuasive, they write.

“An individual who even seemed to show the potential to develop such powers could be viewed as a threat to the group,” they write. “If so, then it could be in the group’s self-interest to cut such a precocious tall poppy down to size.”

To test their hypothesis about the reasons for the negative attitudes, researchers asked 377 teachers in England, Scotland and Australia, who were taking professional development courses in gifted education between Sept. 2003 and May 2005, to respond to an instrument that measured teachers’ subconscious feelings about gifted children.

The 20-item instrument had target statements that were derived mostly from Clark’s (1997) lists of characteristics of gifted children. (B. Clark, Growing up Gifted, Prentice Hall). Some of the statements included:

  • Gifted students dominate discussions.
  • Gifted students have unusual interests.
  • Gifted students are disrespectful to authority.
  • Gifted students make friends easily.
  • Gifted students are perceived by others as elitist, or superior, or too critical.

Instead of the typical Likert-type scale (agree-disagree) responses, researchers used a 5-dimensional semantic differential instrument. Participants’ judgments about the 20 statements were made on the following five dimensions: good-bad, like-dislike, fair-unfair, strong-weak, and valuable-worthless. The choices were presented in a random order.

The purpose of semantic differential scales is to measure the meanings people attribute to concepts when they make judgments, the researchers write.

With an agree-disagree scale, many people tend to go to the center, the researchers write, or to the extremes. Likert-type scales are usually so obvious there also can be an acquiescence response bias.

Social aspects

Responses to the instrument revealed that teachers harbored subconscious negative feelings toward academically gifted students and were suspicious of their precocity, and that the negative feelings focused on students’ superior articulation and nonconformist socializing.

“The deep-rooted nature of such suspicion is reflected in the absence of the effect of teaching experience on factor scores,” the researchers write. “This in turn suggests that the suspicion is not the exclusive province of teachers per se, but might be a general population attribute.”

The good news, say the authors, is that the mean scores on this instrument shifted significantly with completion of a professional development program in gifted education. Teachers who had completed a professional development program in gifted education were significantly less wary of their gifted students than teachers who were still at the beginning or only partway through such a program.

“This outcome is particularly pleasing as it seems to support an educational solution to an educational problem–teachers’ disaffection with the potential antisocial applications of the intelligence of gifted students,” they write.

One limitation to this study, as in any attitude judgment research, is that participants are asked to make responses that do not take into account individual differences of students. Another potential criticism of the study is that the target statements about the gifted were stereotypical. The authors write that they wanted stereotypical statements because many of the teachers were as yet unfamiliar with the nuances of gifted behavior.

“Teachers’ Negative Affect Toward Academically Gifted Students, An Evolutionary Psychological Study, by John Geake and Miraca Gross, Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 52, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 217-231.

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