Frank C. Worrell, PhD, Rena F. Subotnik, PhD, and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, PhD

Continuing Education Information

Giftedness has a long association with psychology. Indeed, popular conceptualizations of gifted individuals often highlight two constructs that are of particular interest to psychologists, intelligence and creativity. From this point of view, the relationship of professional psychology to giftedness is relegated simply to assessment, or using psychological tools to locate the gifted individuals among us, and a psychologist’s involvement typically ends at the moment of identification, when the psychologist bestows the label of giftedness. The other general conceptualization of giftedness and psychology is less positive, as it involves the psychologically distressed gifted individual, with the assumption being that the need for services has come about primarily because the individual is gifted (see Pfieffer, 2009, for an explication of this perspective). For example, there are beliefs in society that individuals with very high IQs lack social skills, and that more creative individuals are more psychologically vulnerable than less creative individuals. In this conceptualization, the role of the psychologist is to help gifted individual functions in society in spite of their giftedness. Not surprisingly, both of these conceptualizations of giftedness do not reflect the breadth of knowledge that a substantial body of psychological research has provided over the years (Cross, Cassady, Dixon, & Adams, 2008). In addition to being simplistic, these conceptualizations of giftedness also suggest that professional psychologists have limited contributions to make when working with individuals who are gifted, a conclusion that is far from accurate. Of course, identification is necessary, but what are the optimal times for identification, how do identification protocols differ across domains of giftedness, and what is the role of a psychologist after identification? Similarly, although there are gifted individuals who would benefit from psychotherapy, are there opportunities for psychologists to work with individuals who are not distressed? In other words, how can psychologists broaden their contribution by facilitating high performance among those who have potential to contribute in a variety of domains? In this paper, we define giftedness and summarize the psychological literature about giftedness. It is our hope that the information will highlight ways in which professional psychologists can and should be working with this population.

What is Giftedness

There are a myriad of conceptualizations of giftedness in the literature (cf Sternberg & Davidson, 1986, 2005). Some definitions focus solely on intelligence whereas others acknowledge other domains and constructs; some definitions are process oriented and some focus on outcomes. Based on our review of this literature we propose a definition of intelligence that is integrated and comprehensive:

Giftedness is the manifestation of performance that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to other high functioning individuals in that domain. Further, giftedness can be viewed as developmental in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable, in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness, and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted. Psychosocial variables play an essential role in the manifestation of giftedness at every developmental stage. Both cognitive and psychosocial variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated. Additionally, the label, gifted, is more likely to be awarded for potential, achievement, or eminent performance in domains that are valued in a sociocultural context. (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011, p. 7)

This definition is intended to be useful across the breadth of domains and is based on notions of giftedness on which there is a fairly broad scientific consensus:

1. Giftedness is a societal construction and will change as societies change;

2. Giftedness is based on actual performance not a state of being;

3. Giftedness develops in different domains and individuals can be gifted in one or more domains;

4. Giftedness is the result of an interaction among biological, pedagogical, psychological, and psychosocial factors; and

5. Giftedness is based on comparison not just to the ordinary, but to the extraordinary.

Contributors to Giftedness 

Many of the variables that are associated with outstanding achievement are psychological constructs. These include general and domain specific ability, creativity, motivation, interest, opportunity, and chance.

General ability. Although the role of ability in giftedness is one of the most contested issues in this arena, individual differences in ability exist (Neisser et al., 1996) and ability, whether operationalized as IQ or scores on other standardized measures, has predictive validity for many important outcomes, including school achievement (Brody, 1997; Kuncel & Hezlett, 2010). The preeminence of IQ as a predictor for giftedness in school settings is, in large part, due to Terman’s (1925) seminal study of high IQ children begun in the 1920s. Terman’s sample was chosen on the basis of scores of 135 and above on the Stanford-Binet test. Despite being chosen on the basis of IQ, Terman and Oden (1959) found that their participants were above average relative to non-high-IQ peers in multiple domains at the 35-year follow-up. They concluded that high-IQ children become high-functioning adults with relatively few exceptions. However, although all of these children were intellectually gifted in childhood, most of them were not eminent as adults. Thus, one important question is can psychology play a role in helping gifted youngsters who wish to do so develop their abilities in ways that help them become eminent adults.

Domain-specific abilities. There is a growing literature about the importance of domain-specific skills in the academic domains. For example, there is a substantial literature on the contributions of phonological skills to reading achievement in the elementary grades (e.g., Shatil & Share, 2003). Lubinski, Benbow, Webb, and Bleske-Rechek (2006) found that specific mathematics and verbal abilities measured in high achieving students before age 13 have predictive value for important educational and occupational outcomes. Wai, Lubinski, and Benbow (2005) showed that this selective group of almost 2,000 students did well academically, and their rank in the top or bottom of the highest 1% of ability in mathematics ability predicted differential academic success. Participants in the highest quartile obtained more doctorates, earned more income, produced more patents, and were more likely to be awarded tenure at top universities than participants in the lowest quartile. These studies have also shown that verbal versus quantitative tilt in abilities predict differences in the domain of accomplishment, with verbal tilt increasing the probability of accomplishments (degrees, publications) in the humanities and quantitative tilt increasing the probability of accomplishments (e.g., degrees, patents) in STEM fields (Park, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2007; Wai et al., 2005).

Domain-specific characteristics have also been associated with outstanding performance in domains as disparate as music (Freeman, 2000; Ruthsatz, Detterman, Griscom, & Cirullo, 2008) and field hockey (e.g., Elferink-Gemser, Kannekens, Lyons, Tromp, & Visscher, 2010; Elferink-Gemser, Visscher, Lemmink, & Mulder, 2007). Eliot Feld identifies potential dancers around the age of 8, using flexibility, body proportion, and physical memory (Subotnik, 2002). In sum, both general and domain-specific abilities play a role in outstanding achievement and psychologists should assess both general and domain-specific abilities when conducting assessments related to gifted identification. Creativity. Creativity has been defined as the ability to come up with novel, useful, and task-appropriate ideas or ways of doing things, and has a long historical association with giftedness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Renzulli, 1978). For a long time, the dominant view in the field was the ability-threshold/creativity hypothesis. This hypothesis postulates that the likelihood of producing something creative increases with intelligence up to about an IQ of 120, beyond which further increments in IQ do not significantly augment one’s chances for creative accomplishment (Dai, 2010; Lubart, 2003). However, Lubinski and colleagues (e.g., Robertson, Smeets, Lubinski, & Benbow 2010) showed that creative accomplishments are predicted by differences in ability. These researchers argued that previous studies did not find a relationship between cognitive ability and creative accomplishments because measures of ability and outcome criteria did not have high enough ceilings to capture variation in the upper tail of the distribution, and the time frames were not long enough to detect indices of more matured talent such as the acquisition of a patent (Park et al., 2007).

There are also different levels of creativity (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009). Little c or everyday creativity is exhibited in narrower social contexts (e.g., a classroom or office) and does not usually entail the creation of novel products or new information (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009; Plucker & Beghetto, 2004). Big C creativity, on the other hand, refers to ground breaking, field and culture altering products and knowledge, which occur in the broadest social context, and involve eminent levels of creative productivity. Little c creativity scores (from childhood) predict the quantity and quality of publicly recognized creative accomplishments in adulthood (Cramond, Matthews-Morgan, Bandalos, & Zuo, 2005; Plucker, 1999).

Motivation. Considerable evidence points to motivation and related variables, such as drive or grit, as the force behind eminent levels of achievement (e.g., Duckworth, Kirby, Tsukayama, Bernstein, & Ericsson, 2010; Gagne, 2010; Nokelainen, Tirri, Campbell, & Walberg, 2007). Despite the widely held belief that gifted students are only intrinsically motivated, Covington and Dray (2002) found that students at a selective university were motivated both by valuing learning (intrinsic) and by proving their ability through accomplishment (extrinsic). Kover and Worrell (2010) also reported similar levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for an academically talented sample. Task commitment is another important motivational variable related to giftedness. In 1986, Renzulli (p. 69) defined task commitment as “a refined or focused form of motivation…. The terms that are most frequently used to describe task commitment are perseverance, endurance, hard work, dedicated practice, self-confidence, and a belief in one’s ability to carry out important work.” Thus, task commitment is best thought of as the constellation of psychosocial variables that translates ability and potential into outstanding performance (Ruthsatz et al., 2008).

All of these motivational variables are key constructs with which many psychologists already work. School psychologists are often called upon to motivate students in academic environments and industrial/organizational psychologists can play a similar role in workplace settings. Sports is another arena in which motivation plays a major role (Williams, 2005) and one of the proficiencies listed by Division 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology) of the American Psychological Association is “training in the development and use of psychological skills for optimal performance of athletes” (Division 47 website, n.d.). Psychologists also work with performers in other fields (e.g., music, drama, and the military) and it is probable that psychologists can be useful in enhancing performance across many more domains than they are currently engaged in.

Emotional trauma. Research suggests that many eminent individuals experienced tragedies early in life or lived in very dysfunctional environments (Goertzel & Goertzel, 2004). It has been suggested that these environments facilitate creativity by promoting characteristics that are useful in helping to tackle ill-defined, unstructured and complex problems. These include early psychological independence, self-sufficiency, an ability to cope with high levels of stress, resiliency, emotional strength, a tolerance for ambiguity, intellectual risk-taking, and a preference for challenge (Albert, 1994; Ochse, 1990; Olszewski-Kubilius, 2008; Simonton, 1994).

Difficult childhood circumstances, trauma in childhood, or experiences of marginalization may also create compelling psychological needs that may be ameliorated or compensated for through creative productivity in adulthood (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Ochse, 1990; Piirto, 1992; Simonton, 1994; VanTassel-Baska, 1996). Nonetheless, it is also important to acknowledge that many eminent individuals did not grow up in dysfunctional environments and many individuals from these environments never become eminent. We need to understand if and how these environments serve as catalysts for individuals with tremendous potential in a domain, as well as how psychologists can play a role in helping these individuals channel their potential.

Interests. The critical role of interests in outstanding performance is an emerging theme in the literature on outstanding performance (Maltese & Tai, 2010; Milgram & Hong, 1999; Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006). In 2010, Ceci and Williams concluded that “one of the most robust findings has been that women at all levels of math aptitude do not prefer [emphasis added] math-intensive careers in anywhere near the numbers that men do” (Ceci & Williams, 2010, p. 190). Differences in interests play a crucial role in many gifted students’ options and choices. Individuals who show tremendous potential in athletics and performing domains are typically encouraged to pursue those domains. Interests also play a role in academic attainment as well. Tai et al. (2006) examined the impact of eighth graders’ interest in science on the probability of earning a life-science degree versus a non-science-related degree, or a physical sciences/engineering degree versus a non-science-related degree. Tai et al. (2006, p.1144) contended that “an average math achiever with a science-related career expectation (or interest) has a higher probability of earning a baccalaureate degree in the physical sciences or engineering than a high mathematics achiever with a non-science career expectation, 34% versus 19%.” These findings suggest that if students have been identified based on general ability alone, it is probable that they will not develop as much as they would were interest taken into account.

Opportunity and chance. Outstanding performance is dependent, in large part, on the opportunities available to develop one’s talent (Barnett & Durden, 1993; Tannenbaum, 1983). Appropriate opportunities provide a context for talent to be nurtured, sometimes even before the scope of the talent is recognized (Gottfried, Gottfried, Bathurst, & Guerin, 1994; Syed, 2010). Consequently, talents are more often developed in households with adequate financial and other resources (Collins & Buller, 2003). Wai, Luibinski, Benbow and Steiger (2010) examined participation in pre-college educational activities such as competitions, academic clubs as well advanced and accelerated classes. These researchers found that students with more of these pre-college experiences – what they called a “higher STEM dose” (p 860) – had a higher rate of notable STEM accomplishments as adults, indicating that opportunities matters. Moreover, in addition to the opportunity for talent to be recognized and appropriately cultivated, the person to whom the opportunity is offered must choose to accept it (Noble, Subotnik, & Arnold, 1996).

Not all opportunities are carefully planned; serendipity can play a role as well (Coleman, 1995, 2005). Austin (1978) classified chance into four types. Type 1 is associated with sheer luck and the individual plays absolutely no role in the outcome. Type 2 chance consists of exploratory behavior and involves the willingness to engage in the world that increases the likelihood of fortuitous opportunities. Type 3 chance only happens if an individual is already steeped in a domain, and thus able to benefit from a random remark or article. Finally, the fourth type of chance is unique to the individual, with some quirk of personality or action resulting in opportunities that would not arise for anyone else. Psychologists can help gifted individuals to be open to and capitalize on Type 2 and Type 3 chance.

Barriers to Developing Giftedness

Gifted education has been criticized for the underrepresentation of children of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Ford, 1998), with blame being cast on identification procedures and societal racism. However, most scholars fail to connect underrepresentation in gifted and talented programs to the larger societal issue of the achievement gap. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are substantially underrepresented among the top 1%, 5% and 10% on almost every achievement measure including grades, GPA, class rank, and standardized test scores – and at every level of education from kindergarten through professional school (Miller, 2004). Plucker, Burroughs, and Song (2010), using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state achievement tests, documented the under-representation of English Language Learners, lower income students, and historically under-represented minorities at the highest levels of achievement – what the authors refer to as pervasiveexcellence gaps.

The reasons for the achievement gap are many and varied, including poverty, lack of access to supplemental educational programs; poor quality schools lower teacher expectations; and lack of tacit knowledge about higher education (Arnold, 1995; Darling-Hammond, 2001; Ferguson, 2008; Sampson, 2002). Several psychosocial factors have also been posited. Cultural ecological theory (Ogbu & Simons, 1998) suggests that students from groups that are discriminated against may actively resist doing well, because doing well is perceived as giving up their cultural identity and acting White. Alternatively, Steele (1997) and colleagues suggested that stereotype threat undermines the performance of negatively stereotyped groups with particularly potent effects on the performance of those who are most invested in doing well. These theories suggest that high ability or high achieving students from low income or ethnically and racially marginalized backgrounds may experience psychosocial stress reconciling their social and their academic or achievement identities, which will decrease their sense of belonging in and willingness to participate in gifted programs and advanced classes (Worrell, 2010). Psychologists can help to facilitate ethnic minority and low-SES groups’ deep, committed, and sustained engagement in domains and environments where they are underrepresented, as this type of engagement is necessary for outstanding accomplishment.

Educating Gifted Students

Enrichment and acceleration are the most frequent strategies employed in gifted education. The goal of enrichment classes is to allow students to engage with a subject in more depth than they would in a traditional classroom. Acceleration encompasses a variety of strategies including those that allow studentsearlier access to courses and content than their same-aged peers. Examples include early entrance to any level of schooling and grade-skipping, and can also include accelerating the pace of instruction within courses, so that two years of material are covered in one academic year. There is general consensus in the field that acceleration is a uniquely appropriate instructional strategy for gifted learners (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004). Research evidence about the academic benefits acceleration is overwhelmingly positive. When compared to students of the same age and ability who are not accelerated, accelerated students demonstrate superior levels of achievement with large effect sizes (Kulik, 2004). Acceleration also has a positive influence on educational aspirations, particularly plans to pursue higher education beyond the bachelor’s degree, and recent work indicates that outstanding accomplishments in STEM fields are related to the amount of “advanced pre-collegiate educational opportunities in STEM” (Wai et al., 2010, p. 860).

A Talent Development Mega-Model

There are a host of talent development models in the literature (Olszewski-Kubilius, 2000; Sternberg & Davidson, 2005). Most of the models acknowledge general and specific ability as factors, as well as the role of expert instruction and mentoring in developing optimal performers and producers, and all of them acknowledge the central role of personal commitment to hard work (Ericsson, 1996) and a drive to excel, whether derived from intrinsic or extrinsic sources (Ochse, 1990; Simonton, 1997). In this section, we propose a mega-model of talent development that is intended to apply to all domains of endeavor. Before introducing the model, we distinguish between the two categories of domains, performers and producers.

Figure 1 Similarities and differences between Performers and Producers

Performers and producers. Exemplars of the performer category include singers, instrumentalists, dancers, actors, and athletes whereas exemplars of the producer category include composers, choreographers, writers, and scholars/scientists/academics. As noted in Figure 1, performers and producers are similar in some ways and different in others. Both groups have expert knowledge in their domains’ content and skill sets. This expertise is developed by way of mentored guidance, a challenging regimen of practice or intensive study, and a commitment to excellence, as they are being inculcated into the values of the domain. Psychosocial skills are important for success in all domains. However, in performance domains, instruction and coaching in these skills are an integral part of training and talent development (Martindale, Collins, & Abraham, 2007). Physical skill plays a central role in the development of performers. Elite performers are appreciated by the general public whereas elite producers, especially in specialized academic domains (e.g., mathematics, theoretical physics), tend to be appreciated mainly by individuals who are also members of that field.

Developmental trajectories in three domains. Figure 2 highlights differences in performance trajectories among and within domains with regard to beginning, peaking, and ending across the lifespan. Although there are often exceptions to general principles, the purpose of this figure is to depict how the process of talent development varies by type of field. Whether a trajectory begins in early childhood or in adolescence, for example, depends upon when the skills and abilities required for success in the talent domain emerge and coalesce. This outcome is affected by physical maturation in fields such as music and sports as well as when these can be recognized either by systematic identification procedures (e.g., school programs, talent searches) or knowledgeable adults (e.g., parents, coaches). Moreover, the developmental course of domain trajectories is affected by training and education, which is tied to our schooling system in many academic areas.

Figure 2 Early and late trajectories in music, athletics, and academic domains

Peaks are affected by the amount of training and education needed to reach high levels of expertise (the 10,000 hour rule) as well as accumulation of maturity and experience of the individual in fields such as psychology, religion, or diplomacy. End points of developmental trajectories also vary widely. Some trajectories are short, such as for boy sopranos, for whom puberty will truncate further development, whereas others including most academic fields and some music fields, are virtually lifelong. For many other fields, especially academic ones, individuals can remain involved and active well into late adulthood, with almost no limits on productivity. Intervals between starts and peaks also vary greatly, with some fields requiring long periods of preparation.

From ability to eminence. Figure 3 combines the themes previously discussed into a megamodel of talent development. First, domains have developmental trajectories with different start, peak, and end times for outstanding performance. Second, giftedness is evaluated in relationship to others. At the earliest stages, giftedness is determined and largely defined by potential, and it is determined by demonstrated achievement in adolescence and early adulthood. However, by adulthood, eminent levels of achievement, which often transcend comparisons, define giftedness. Third, the talent development process involves several transitions whereby abilities are developed into competencies, competencies are transformed into expertise, and expertise provides a foundation for the development of eminence. The type of creativity an individual manifests is a feature that distinguishes ability from competence, competence from expertise, and expertise from eminence. Creative thinking and skills such as metaphorical thinking, divergent thinking, and creative problem solving can be deliberately and systematically developed during middle childhood and adolescence (Pyryt 1999). Finally, the transition to eminent levels of achievement requires a substantial shift, with creative products being judged not just in relation to others at similar levels in the field, but also in terms of how these move the field forward (Simonton, 1977, 2000).

Figure 3 A mega-model of talent development

Although we recognize that the generation of creative performances or outcomes requires person, process, and product, we also recognize that the relative emphasis on each of these three factors shifts over time. For example, when working with young children, it is important to help them develop a creative approach and attitude (person), whereas working with older children is focused on the acquisition of skills (process). The acquisition of these mindsets and process skills is then coupled with deep multi-disciplinary content knowledge and applied to the creation of intellectual, aesthetic, or practical products or performances (product) in gifted adults. Finally, the talent development process is driven by expert teachers, mentors, and coaches. At each stage, the strategies and goals of instruction change (Bloom, 1985). In the earliest stage, it is the job of the teacher or coach to engage the explicit or undeveloped interests of young people in a topic or domain and both engender and capitalize on motivation. In Stage 2 of development, it is critical that teachers and coaches facilitate the development of the needed skills, knowledge, and values associated with the acquisition of expertise in that domain. The teacher in the third stage helps the talented individual to develop a niche in the field, related to the individual’s personal style, method, or approach and unique area of application. At each of these stages, there are opportunities for psychologists to work with parents, teachers, and the gifted individuals, as the latter develop their talent.

Of course, movement from ability to competence to expertise and to eminence will be enhanced or impeded by psychosocial and other factors such as low motivation, mindsets that prevent coping with setbacks or thwart resiliency, less than optimal learning opportunities, or simply chance events. On the other hand, progress can be maintained or accelerated by the availability of educational opportunities, psychological and social support from significant individuals, and social capital. These enhancers and delimiters are included at the bottom of the figure and it is in these areas that the work of professional psychologists may be most useful.

Opportunities for Psychologists

Figure 4 consists of four quadrants based on high or low access to opportunities and high or low motivation. In this section, we provide a brief description of the four quadrants in the figure and suggest some questions related to scientific and professional psychology that emerged from our review of the literature.

Figure 4 Motivation, opportunity, and achievement

High opportunity and high motivation. Students in the high opportunity/high motivation category have a number of personal and environmental advantages, including knowledgeable and supportive families, mentors, and access to talent development programs. As they themselves are also motivated to take advantage of those opportunities, these students are the most likely group to achieve at high levels. However, eminent levels of achievement are rare even among this group. Can we propel more of these students towards eminence if we have a better understanding of the talent development process within domains? Some of the questions that need to be answered with regard to this group include the following:

  • Are there identifiable common or typical critical experiences within various talent development trajectories? What are their common and/or essential features or elements? At what point in development do they need to occur?
  • What are the person-environmental interactions that are significant in developing psychological traits conducive to high levels of talent development? Can these be deliberately crafted for students for whom they do not occur in their natural environments of home and school?
  • How do students maintain commitment and motivation during difficult times throughout the talent development process?
  • What is the developmental pattern of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in individuals who demonstrate high levels of commitment to talent development?

Low opportunity but high motivation. Students who possess interest and motivation to learn and achieve, but who lack opportunities are at risk for not fully developing their talents. These students may or may not have supportive families or teachers but even if they do, not being involved in appropriate educational opportunities from early on can result in domain-specific deficits that are not easily overcome. Yet, these students are an important societal responsibility. A research and practice agenda that would inform work with these students includes the following questions:

  • How can high motivation be discerned in the absence of appropriate educational experiences and opportunities? How can highly motivated students without talent development opportunities be identified within schools and communities? What are the indicators of high motivation and interest that might be missed by classroom teachers and not readily apparent within unchallenging learning situations?
  • What are the most important components of successful interventions with low income, low opportunity students who possess talent and motivation?
  • What are the coping strategies used by students who maintain motivation and interest despite limited opportunities for advanced study and challenging academic opportunities?
  • How does a developmental perspective on talent affect the nature of interventions that can be successful with students who have limited opportunities?

High opportunity and low motivation. One of the more frustrating challenges for parents and teachers involves potentially talented children who under-achieve in school, shy away from demanding educational opportunities, or choose not to partake of supplemental, enriching activities available through school or their communities. Reversing under-achievement is difficult and becomes more so as children age and beliefs and patterns of behavior become entrenched. What is the likelihood that motivational problems can be successfully addressed and how should society invest in programs that attempt to do so? An agenda that would inform work with these students includes the following questions:

  • What interventions have been successful in generating or re-generating motivation among under-achieving and disengaged, talented students?
  • What are the early psychological roots and underpinnings of low motivation and interest in the face of opportunities?
  • At what point in development is under-achievement or disengagement most likely to occur for talented students?
  • To what extent are existing psychological constructs such as stereotype threat, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, attributions, mindsets, achievement goal orientation, and academic self-concept and related theoretical models useful in providing explanations for failure of talented students to engage in talent development activities?
  • To what extent is low motivation and involvement in talent development opportunities for gifted students contextually based?

Low opportunity and undetermined motivation. The students that pose the greatest challenge to educators are those who have both limited opportunities for talent development within their homes, schools, or communities as well as low or undetermined motivation to achieve. For these students, increasing opportunities is vital and the key to uncovering hidden abilities and talents. An agenda that could inform psychologists’ work with these students might include the following questions:

  • What kind of programming would best cultivate talent and reveal interest and motivation in early and middle childhood?
  • Can programs be crafted that simultaneously develop skills and competencies but also the psychological characteristics needed to sustain commitment and persistence in challenging learning environments?
  • What additional social and psychological supports are most critical for students who have had little opportunity to develop or demonstrate interests and abilities?
  • Which option is most effective in terms of putting more children onto talent development trajectories: (a) programming that directly focuses on developing psychological characteristics such as coping skills, resilience, academic self concept, effort-based achievement orientations, (b) programming that focuses on enhancing domain relevant skills and content knowledge and indirectly provides psychological and social support, or (c) both types of programming combined?


In this article, we have provided a definition of giftedness that is intended to apply across domains and reviewed the literature on the variables related to giftedness, with a focus on the role of professional psychology. We now recap the main points that we have covered. General ability and specific abilities are fundamental prerequisites to high achievement and both should be included in assessment protocols for identifying gifted individuals. Although general ability and potential are the hallmarks of giftedness in young children, domain specific ability and achievement become increasingly important as individuals develop and increase their knowledge base in a field. Because of physical and intellectual demands and cultural traditions, domains have different entry points, peaks, and endings. Some require early exposure and early identification, and have short windows for performance and productivity, whereas others begin later and have no fixed endpoint. Understanding trajectories in different fields is critical so that windows of opportunity for talent development are not missed. Opportunity rests on the availability of both in school and outside of school programs tailored to the talent area, and continuous effort is essential, as research has shown that it takes years of continual study or practice to reach levels of expertise in most domains.

Of particular importance to psychologists, psychosocial variables are important contributors to outstanding performance at every stage of development. Qualities such as the willingness to take risks, the ability to cope with challenges and to handle criticism, competitiveness, motivation, and task commitment will differentiate those students who move to increasingly higher levels of talent development from those who do not. Psychology has tended to focus on addressing issues that impede performance. However, psychology is as important in facilitating the development of optimal levels of performance across the lifespan. It is our view that psychosocial characteristics should be taught in all domains explicitly and deliberately, and not left to chance. We suggest that this psychological strength training is as important as content and skill instruction and practice in a talent area.

Finally, eminence should be the goal of gifted education. We value and recognize the importance of high levels of expertise, but keeping our focus on eminence supports a continued focus on excellence and optimal performance. We do not believe that aspiring to eminence is deleterious to the personal well-being or mental health of individuals, particularly if its promotion is guided by knowledge about the appropriate kinds and levels of support, an area in which psychology is uniquely qualified to contribute. The confluence of eminence and poor mental health is not substantiated by larger scale, empirical studies. We assert, in fact, that fulfillment of one’s talents and abilities will lead to high levels of personal satisfaction and self-actualization as well as unimaginable benefits to society.


worrellFrank C. Worrell, PhD, is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley and Director of the School Psychology Program. A licensed psychologist and a certified school psychologist, his research interests include academic talent development, cultural identities, and scale development and validation.

SubotnikRena F. Subotnik, PhD, is an educational psychologist and the Director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association. The Center's mission is to generate public awareness, advocacy, clinical applications, and cutting-edge research ideas that enhance the achievement and performance of children and adolescents with gifts and talents in all domains.

OlszewskiKubiliusPaula Olszewski-Kubilius, PhD, is an educational psycholigist and the Director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, where she is a Professor in the School of Education and Social Policy. Over the past 29 years, she has created programs for all kinds of gifted learners and written extensively on issues of talent development.

Author Note

Frank C. Worrell, Cognition and Development, University of California, Berkeley; Rena F. Subotnik, Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, Education Directorate, American Psychological Association; Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University.

This research was supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the Association for Psychological Science, and the American Psychological Association. This article is based on a monograph published the authors in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(1).

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Frank C. Worrell, Cognition and Development, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, 4511 Tolman Hall, #1670 Berkeley, CA, 94720-1670. Email:


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