Reasons to avoid the term "gifted"

© Mar 2008 Paul Cooijmans

Often one hears the term "gifted", in relation to high intelligence or ability. There are a few problems with that:

The main issue is that different people use this word in different meanings that are mutually incompatible, while actually they think they are speaking about the same. And whenever that happens within one field of expertise, the word becomes unusable inside that field, as one will inevitably be misunderstood. Common meanings attached to the word "gifted" are:

  1. Having a high intelligence test score, typically specified as at or above the 98th centile;
  2. Having a large amount of inborn ability (talent) in fields other than intelligence, typically music, visual arts, dancing, acting and so on;
  3. Having the combination of either or both of the first two mentioned, with motivation, persistence and "creativity", and the needed environmental or social support, so that all of this together leads to success in one's field.

For meaning 1., the term "intelligent" is better, and the cutoff should be a bit higher, about the 996th millile, keeping in mind that the intelligence tests used in regular psychology mostly have no validity in that range. Also, a problem is that the term "gifted" says explicitly that the intelligence has been given, either by God or through heredity. And while that may or may not be true, such a religious or scientific judgement should be avoided in choosing one's terminology.

For meaning 2., the word "talented" suffices.

Meaning 3. partly coincides with the higher-level concept of creativity, defined as the synergy of conscientiousness, intelligence and associative horizon. Differences are that in this higher-level concept there is no explicit need for talents other than intelligence (which - those talents other than intelligence - may well be present and used but do not influence one's degree of creativity), and that there is no explicit role for social environment (which may still play an indirect role by influencing one's conscientiousness, for instance).

People often also support one of these meanings in contrast, or competition, with another meaning. For instance, if "giftedness" in the first sense (intelligence) is featured in television shows, one invariably comes up with remarks about some boy or girl who can play the violin well and is "really" gifted, to thus put down the intelligent guests of the program who are "merely" gifted in intelligence. And those who support the third meaning like to emphasize that intelligence in itself is not enough, and that high intelligence is not per se a good thing in itself.

In fact, the first meaning is the one that is the most often ridiculed or criticized, and this probably reflects the importance of intelligence, which is all in all the largest factor in human achievement, so that the mediocre who sense they do not have enough of it are always keen to play down its meaning.

A secondary point of discussion is whether the literal meaning of "gifted" - having been given something - is correct. If one believes talent or intelligence is received from God, or from one's parents via genes, then the word is literally correct. If however one believes humans are born equal, as blank slates, and environment is all-important, then one should reject the word "gifted" altogether.