Research News

Lubinski, Benbow awarded ‘Gifted Child Quarterly’ Paper of the Year

By Jenna Somers

Portrait photo of Camilla Benbow
Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) has awarded David Lubinski, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology, and Camilla Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development, the Gifted Child Quarterly Paper of the Year award for their paper, “Intellectual Precocity: What Have We Learned Since Terman?”

“In a nutshell, ability does matter for exceptional achievement and creativity, and our work for the past 40-plus years has shown how it operates in combination with other factors. The seeds of exceptionality are identifiable at 12 and germinate with proper nurturance,” Benbow said.

“Specifically, extraordinary potential requires opportunities to grow at extraordinary rates for optimal development. Allowing students to grow at their desired rate is not only educationally efficacious, but it also facilitates psychological well-being,” added Lubinski.

The award was among those presented at the NAGC annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, in November.

Portrait photo of David Lubinski
David Lubinski, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Psychology

Lubinski and Benbow lead the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, a longitudinal study now in its 51st year. The researchers’ award-winning paper reviews established empirical findings within the field of intellectual precocity to answer eight key questions about the intellectual abilities and educational, occupational and creative outcomes of those who score in the top one percent on mathematical and verbal reasoning when assessed by age 13. Lubinski and Benbow’s review of research findings in this field reveals a clear consensus on intellectual precocity. The most important are:

  • Greater intellectual ability leads to greater achievements; that is true even among the top one percent, with the upper quartile of the top one percent outperforming the bottom quartile in that select group. While other factors do indeed matter, more ability is better.
  • Both the level and the pattern of three specific intellectual strengths–mathematical, spatial, and verbal abilities—are essential for predicting educational, occupational and creative outcomes. Skill in spatial ability is particularly determinative of how one performs in several STEM disciplines as well as several creative arts.
  • Even among the profoundly gifted—those with IQs of 160 or higher—significant intellectual diversity exists, and the level and pattern of mathematical, spatial and verbal abilities are determinative of occupational and creative outcomes.
  • Intellectual abilities and educational/occupational interests are relatively independent, making both important to understanding the many ways in which one may satisfyingly pursue educational, occupational and creative opportunities.
  • Female elite STEM graduate students share very similar psychological profiles with male elite STEM graduate students and with male peers of equivalent mathematical aptitude not enrolled in STEM graduate programs. Female peers with an equivalent aptitude for math not in STEM graduate programs exhibit differing psychological profiles from the three aforementioned groups, as they have broader academic interests, careers and values. These gender differences might help to explain why some studies on the development of STEM expertise fail to replicate and why intellectually talented male and female students earn commensurate proportions of advanced degrees, but female students are more likely to do so in intellectually demanding disciplines outside of STEM.
  • Intellectually precocious youths who receive appropriate developmental placement and intellectual stimulation produce greater creative accomplishments relative to intellectual peers deprived of the same opportunities.
  • Elite performers who become leaders in their fields—rather than “merely” solid contributors— dedicate inordinate amounts of time toward their craft, working well above 40 hours a week. Outstanding creative and occupational accomplishments are rare because they require not only exceptional ability and interests, but also a lifestyle that is unappealing to many.
  • Major findings on intellectual precocity all derive from familiar concepts and findings in the educational and psychological sciences. Intellectual precocity should not be seen as a discrete category but rather the upper end of the human ability continuum.

In their paper, Lubinski and Benbow point to earlier work by Nicholas Hobbs, the first director of The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, who in 1958 published an article that addressed the conspicuous neglect of gifted students and the need to correct for it. “We have been prodigal of talent in America, being content to let lie fallow or refuse to cultivate much of our human potential,” wrote Hobbs. “But…gifted children, after years of neglect in education, are all the rage…We should recognize that this sudden interest in intelligence springs from concern with prospects for national survival.”

As societies confront the complex modern challenges of managing pandemics, climate change, and cybersecurity (among others), the researchers believe that developing exceptional talent is more important than ever.