Friday, January 10, 2014

Gifted and arrogant: What does "Sherlock" reveal about giftedness?

The BBC hit series, “Sherlock,” portrays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (and his sidekick Watson, who, of course, blogs) in a witty, engaging portrayal of the master detective. What stands out, though, is a depiction of a highly gifted individual who behaves arrogantly, says whatever he thinks, and falls short in relationships. Highly gifted intellect and asynchronous development that entertains. But should we be laughing?

While engaging, and not as blatantly stereotypical, say, as Sheldon, the gifted, socially awkward scientist on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sherlock reinforces the assumption that highly gifted people are impossible to fathom, socially aberrant, and hold contempt toward those less brilliant, entertaining or talented. When Sherlock refuses to engage with people because they bore him, or chastises others for their stupidity, he conveys the arrogance often attributed to the gifted.

Yet, are highly gifted people really arrogant?

A study at the University of Nebraska conducted by Paul Silvia and colleagues identified a correlation between individuals self-identified as highly creative and a lower score representing honesty and humility on a measure of personality traits. However, the researchers noted limitations in the study, as subjects were young college students, and measures of creativity were only based on self-report. Also it is not known whether subjects in this study were actually gifted, or just inclined toward creative pursuits.

On the other hand, some famous gifted individuals have displayed signs of arrogance. Psychiatrist Neel Burton compiled a list of appalling, cringeworthy comments made by creative individuals throughout history. While a blatantly self-inflated sense of self is not common, when someone possesses extraordinary talents, whether intellectual, artistic, or athletic, the individual may lose perspective. 

And gifted individuals may have the same difficulty as anyone else with perspective-taking, or recognizing that others don’t see the world as they do. Their impatience and frustration can quickly progress to a lack of compassion for others who are less capable. While young children may vocalize their irritation without censor, adults may be more circumspect, yet still convey disapproval or boredom through nonverbal communication. Condescension and disdain typically arise from surprise or even disappointment when others can’t keep up with their thinking.  What do you mean you can’t figure that out? How can you not see the point of that book? You really didn’t get that joke?

So, what differentiates arrogance from honest self-reflection in the highly gifted?


Arrogance is the same for gifted individuals as it is for anyone else: it is evident when someone assumes he or she is intrinsically better than others. Arrogance is displayed through self-absorption, entitlement, an air of superiority, and a lack of empathy or caring for others’ opinions or feelings. Whether the result of excessive unwarranted praise, underlying insecurity, or lack of perspective, arrogance can reflect a distorted view of oneself, a level of detachment from others, and at times, more serious emotional disturbance. However, arrogance should not be assumed just because a careful and sober assessment of facts finds that intellect, skills or accomplishments are exceptional.

In fact, while some gifted children and adults may bask in the glow of their abilities, most are actually too self-aware to indulge in this for long. Once they develop the maturity and insight to appreciate the nature of their abilities, gifted individuals typically recognize that with these talents come the burden of expectations, the need for rigor and hard work, and the social and emotional components of giftedness that make life more complicated. Most gifted individuals expect a lot from themselves; they know when they are underperforming and can be highly critical of a finished product, scrutinizing every detail or flaw. Many hide their talents by downplaying their abilities, "dumbing themselves down" as teens, or becoming chronic underachievers.

Gifted children, teens and adults may be wrongly perceived as arrogant when they accurately and matter-of-factly state the obvious; they excel at certain things. They possess exceptional intellectual and/or artistic/musical abilities, and when they calmly mention their strengths, express competitive desires, or are pleased with their accomplishments, they may be accused of being arrogant. While humility and modesty are admirable traits, there also must be a time and place for simple acknowledgement of one's strengths. Gifted individuals may be under particular scrutiny when they communicate their abilities or frustrations. Others may become angry or intimidated when a gifted child questions her teacher's accuracy, when a gifted teen makes no attempt to hide his boredom in class, or when a gifted adult acknowledges success.

Gifted children benefit from the same parental and social support as other children with respect to perspective-taking, empathy, and values. They can learn how to express their initiative, passion, impatience, frustration, and excitement over achievements using kindness and tact. They can be reminded that their exceptional abilities are an accident of birth, and make them no more special than others. They can be guided to respect and appreciate another person's perspective, even if they do not agree.

What are your opinions about arrogance and giftedness?

References:
Silvia, P, Kaufman, J., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Weigert, B. (2011). Cantakerous creativity: Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and the HEXACO structure of creative achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 687-689.

29 comments:

  1. I don't see gifted kids as any more arrogant than those who aren't gifted. Some people can be arrogant if they think too much of themselves, regardless of how talented they are or not.

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  2. Sometimes loneliness can be misconstrued as arrogance. When you live a life in which people constantly fail to understand your jokes or comments, it can be truly alienating. People are less understanding of high intelligence than they are of other advanced skills, such as athletic ability for which arrogance, or perceived arrogance is also highly problematic, but is often considered more socially acceptable. Of course, there are times when arrogance really is just plain arrogance too.

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  3. Great points. Thanks for your comments.

    Gail

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  4. Arrogance? I don't see them on gifted people..i see them a lot in the streets..these gang people wearing their pants below their butt and think that are way above the law...that is for me being arrogant...

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  5. Good article until last paragraph. Abilities can be an accident of birth, or they can be a sum of experience, environment and inherited DNA. Quite often a gifted reader can combine their existing talents, plus drive and pride in achievement, to become 'profoundly gifted' in a particular area - Sherlock and House MD were not BORN forensic investigators/diagnosticians. They worked hard to achieve distinction. Also gifted parents are much more likely to have gifted kids: Giftedness isn't strictly a blind lottery.

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    1. M. Smith,

      I certainly agree that hard work is necessary for any achievement to occur. I still would view giftedness as innate ability, but what someone does with it rests on their drive, goals, and their environment. But thanks for your thoughts.

      Gail

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  6. "Gifted individuals" strikes me as being the key. Sherlock and Sheldon are not representative of all gifted people -- they are gifted individuals. We talk about giftedness as taking many different forms, as being possible among many different conditions. Sherlock is Sherlock. Does he demonstrate characteristics of giftedness? Certainly. However, he does not exhibit all possible characteristics of giftedness in their entirety, nor should his particular foibles be interpreted as indicative of all gifted individuals.

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    1. Good point about the individuality of gifted individuals. Of course, they are TV characters! But they do, unfortunately, reflect certain stereotypes.
      Gail

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  7. Much as I love BBC and TBBT as a fan, as a gifted person, I watch them with a sense of unease. Almost all of my classes as a teenager with high achieving students and there were a fair number of gifted students in our midst. I certainly met my fair share of Sheldons and Sherlocks -- arrogant SOBs who thought the world beneath them and let us all know it. Friends? No they didn't have many.

    Yet I think it's dangerous for those without much experience with the gifted to base their assumptions of gifted behavior on Sherlock and/or Sheldon. We rarely see positive examples of gifted individuals in mainstream entertainment. But they are there. I also met a fair share of Leonards and John Watsons -- gifted intellectually who may be awkward but also knew how to have (and keep!) friends.

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    1. Really agree with your comment that there are few "normal" gifted individuals in entertainment. Those who are gifted are often portrayed as odd, quirky, tortured, socially awkward, or mad scientist types. Little room for normalcy in how they are viewed.

      Gail

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    2. As I read your comment, a "positive" gifted TV character came to mind... Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds ?

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  8. It is true though- I have myself encountered the sort of mistaken nature of acknowledging giftedness as arrogance. I have high standards for myself as a musician, and when I communicate the sort of frustrations I encounter when wanting to get better and not succeeding at first in something challenging, I feel some people somehow perceive that as arrogance even though it's more to do with ambition and acknowledging the goal as being realistic. Certain aspects of musical giftedness can also be a burden- one notices the sounds around oneself much more and may find some of them much more annoying and noticeable than most people. When I mention problems related to this increased sensitivity in sound some people may perceive it as bragging.
    Another huge problem I find is people thinking of giftedness as making everything easy and not having to do work. Surely it makes some things easier, but whether or not someone is gifted, they need to be motivated to do lots of work to really excel.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. It becomes so complicated when gifted individuals express frustration with themselves and their comments are misinterpreted by others who fail to appreciate their drive and personal ambition. Much of what you mentioned in your comment relates to having to educate others about the reality of being gifted, and continuing to challenge misconceptions.

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  9. I used to be perceived as arrogant or stuck up in High school but in reality I was extremely shy.

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  10. I believe that as a society we must also remember that gifted people often do not see the word as the rest of us see it, and therefore can have a difficult time relating to others. Gifted people can often have obsessions in their studies and work and may be so focused in their minds on their thoughts that they cannot break out of them to have a conversation on the state of the weather or some other topic that they perceive as mundane, and other people may misinterpret this lack of interrelating as aloofness or arrogance.

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  11. These are both really good points. Both shyness and intense interest in other things can be perceived as aloofness and arrogance. A challenge for gifted individuals is figuring out how to live in a world where others don't see things as they do. Social norms are difficult to navigate, may seem pointless, and often may not be as rewarding as the captivating interest at hand. Yet, it is hurtful to be misperceived as arrogant when that is not one's intention.

    Gail

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    1. Great article, and also a topic I am ever more concerned by these days. I wanted to comment on this idea, that gifted people need to understand that others don't see the world the same way as they do, which almost sounds like gifted people are half autistic most of the times. Yet giftedness comes not only with some extra IQ points, but also strong moral values and deep empathy and understanding for people, because you can imagine things very well and thus, one does actually understand where the others come from.

      The impatience and frustration comes, in my opinion, from the fact that one does in fact clearly understand where other people come from, but also acknowledges a wide number of alternatives, and thus it is rather painful to see people struggling in their own worlds, not seeing all the other perspectives a gifted person would.

      For me personally, a strong principle in my life is to always listen to everything one has to say, until I get the whole picture, the world they come from and try by best to find a solution for them within that context, as I have learned that most people get stuck in certain patterns and so, it would be futile to bring about creative alternative solutions.

      I always come from a place of compassion, so for me, the worst thing could anyone tell me is that I'm being arrogant, or selfish. However, especially here in Germany, this has been an ongoing struggle, since the cultural differences block people from seeing where I come from, often resulting in being accused of arrogance.

      I don't know if people understand how painful that is, especially given all the other insecurities one may have, and usually does have, e.g. you do see your shortcomings with vivid eyes which of itself is already frustrating enough. Thus being called arrogant makes no sense, and for me personally illogical accusations usually lead to existential depressions, that is, a lot of time to accept that most people are likely to randomely throw words, they have not thought through, because they feel intrinsically attacked. The fact that they would feel this is is a painful thought of its own, and here begins the endless cycle of painful thoughts. . More than anyone, gifted people need acknowledgment and people how are there for them and are supportive without entering some nonexisting competition. .

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  12. Why should we be surprised when gifted people are arrogant? We send them through years of schooling where they are the top student and often have to do very little to earn that honor. In the academic world that their lives center on, they ARE better than almost anyone and sometimes even know the material better than the teacher. People are constantly telling them how brilliant they are and the envy is obvious.

    The same thing happens to star athletes, wealthy people, and celebrities. Inflated egos often accompany success.

    What should we do?

    1) Put gifted kids with intellectual peers. Let them be with people who are sometimes smarter than them. Let them study material hard enough that it is not intuitive and they are sometimes wrong. Make classes tough enough that they have to work hard to get top grades.

    2) Value all human life. We live in a utilitarian society where the value of one's life is dependent on what they can offer. We may claim there is equality, but we don't act like there really is. We look down on the homeless person and look up to the business leaders. We abort children with physical or mental defects. We fawn over the birth of a child of a nation's leader, but ignore poor kids who are starving. A death in the ghetto goes unreported, but the death of a celebrity is front page news. Until human life is valued for its humanity instead of what that person can do, gifted people ARE superior. This is wrong.

    3) Point out to our gifted kids the strengths that others have. Point out Sara's compassion and caring. Point out how George is a phenomenal athlete and encourages his teammates. Point out that Susan, who has Down Syndrome, lights up a room when she comes in. Intellectual giftedness is not the only trait worth having. We should look for the strengths in others instead of seeing how we are better than them.

    There is the old saw about being born on third base and believing you hit a triple. This happens with gifted kids too. Intellectual giftedness is a random trait and not something accomplished to take pride in. You could just have easily been born with a very low IQ - and would be no less of a person.

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    1. Joshua,
      Such good comments about how the environment and values gifted kids are immersed in can breed an overly inflated sense of self. Gifted children need an opportunity to experience a challenging education, like-minded peers, and plenty of failure so they can develop resilience. They also need to learn the value of what others can offer, especially those who are not gifted. Thanks for your comments.

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    2. Don't let gifted kids be with peers who are smarter than they are. The more they will want to be better than everyone. There will be arguments and bullying.

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  13. Interesting post. Considering that Sherlock has, historically, been depicted as affluent, there's the issue of class, too. Other than identifying his brother as a higher-up in the British intelligence service, we know little about the "new" Sherlock's family. He was able to make it into Buckingham Palace with a sheet, and I don't imagine that the average British citizen can pull that off. Seems clear to me that he has an abundance of privilege which can cause an inflated sense of self, too. His bearing and clothing suggest affluence--the famous elegant suit, the trench coat didn't come off any old rack. So in the case of this Cumberbatch's Sherlock, I think we have to be careful about looking at him solely through the lens of giftedness.

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    1. Interesting thoughts about social class and how that influences behavior.

      Gail

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  14. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Asperger's Syndrome. I know, it was removed and renamed as part of the autism spectrum, blah blah. However, These characters are displaying many of those signs and unfortunately this syndrome is very misunderstood. There is an actual disability going on, (context blindness, SPD, executive function deficits, and so forth). They are accused by family and professionals alike, of not having empathy, but in most cases I know of, that is patently false, and it's really more of a perception/communication issue, and or emotional buffering that is needed to survive sensory overload. Look at it from the perspective of having to communicate with others and function within systems that are not sensory friendly to them. People used to leave wheelchair bound people out of public social spaces and events. We now see that as abhorrent and insist legally that they be accommodated so as to include them as equally valuable members of society and there are consequences for discrimination against them. People with invisible disability or neruo-differences like ASD are a long way from receiving that kind of empathy from our society. So really it's society that lacks empathy! Neurotypical people perceive their behavior as different and then judge it harshly, because it's not what they expect. They are used to being catered to by the other neurotypicals who have that drive to fit in and conform to expectations. Not being burdened with that drive to conform does not alway have to be a bad thing, as is evidenced by some well known artists, scientists, philosophers, scientists, from history.

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    1. Jeanne,

      Your point about Aspergers is well taken. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and clear description of the thinking and behaviors these individuals exhibit, and misunderstanding they encounter in society.

      Gail

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  15. You have to put down people who aren't gifted nor unique because they conform to expectations too much.

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  16. "Sometimes loneliness can be misconstrued as arrogance. When you live a life in which people constantly fail to understand your jokes or comments, it can be truly alienating. People are less understanding of high intelligence than they are of other advanced skills, such as athletic ability for which arrogance, or perceived arrogance is also highly problematic, but is often considered more socially acceptable. "
    The story of my life.
    So i isolate myself and people feel like this is the ultimate proof of my arrogance. It's even funny in a sense.

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  17. Loneliness is huge. It is so difficult, if one has a vast array of procured knowledge (a broad and vast knowledge , KNOWLEDGE, distinguishable from "giftedness", is nonetheless a by-product of 'giftedness" if "giftedness" includes an almost obsessive need to satisfy an unquenchable CURIOSITY).The "giftedness" comes in, I think, when one can synthesize the knowledge and make connections across an array of subjects. I think there is a diff between IQ and "giftedness" and it doesn't always overlap, coincide....A human library may be smart (aka book-smart), even "arrogant", has an abundance of "knowledge". "Giftedness" is diff, I think...maybe less 'book-smarts" per se, but has a unique ability to SYNTHESIZE, to find/make connections. ...I suppose, depending on context, this could also be perceived as arrogance, or maybe just crazy......Was this post arrogant as well? Well poopy butt bubbles, I never know and I feel I always get things wrong. I've been called a "know it all" all my life, esp beginning w/my parents, my Dad even called me "Lawyer....(my name)..."
    These things are devastating. Yet I was placed in "Gifted and Talented" classes in 4th grade, and my school had wanted me to skip 2nd grade, 1st to 3rd......so it's true, or no? and how do I express that reality?
    But such name calling, "smart alec", "lawyer----", "smart-ass", "know it all" when all a kid is doing is actually just ACTUALLIZING what he/she does know??? And actualizing what they've been ENCOURAGED to be? Smart, educated, successful, outstanding---yet face devastating criticism for ACHIEVING exactly that????
    This creates a dissonance, a deep deep psychic dissonance which can become a life-long debilitating state of mind and relationship with one's "SELF".......
    One's "self", identity, is in a catch 22, "cognitive dissonance", and a 'gifted" can totally get this and FEELS his/her's unwantedness. Perhaps in some as self-defence it manifests as 'arrogance", in others? Not interested in self-defence? Worst case, suicide. This is not a joke.
    This a cruel society. This is a cruel world where ANYONE who steps beyond the velvet rope of normalcy is likely to find themselves under attack, any variety of persons, not just the "gifted".
    It's nothing personal, just business.
    This is the greatest concept anyone can learn, in this world, it's really never really personal, we are deeply and almost all defend, that it's "just business". "Giftedness" is no greater or lesser a target of ridicule or ultimately removal that any other abherant who steps out of the "company line".
    peace friends, mk

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  18. ps I love the Sherlock and find the character to be neither "arrogant" nor as he calls himself a "high functioning sociopath".....there's the 1st hint. An individual cannot be a "socio"path, that technically means of a group, and last I checked, Sherlock is not a group, but an individual, soooo....wrong-o!!!! Psychopath would be accurate desript of an individual......but...
    so....Sherlock was a Mycroft "product", if the writers ever decide to "wrap" this script, Sherlock was an experiment of the MI....something along those lines....and actually Sherlock isn't even a psychopath (hint in the type of crimes he investigates, most esp Magnussen "like a shark") (Magnussen a psycho)....it's Mycroft who's the psychopath whp sold out his one brother to experimentation, and the other brother? well, remember what happened to him........?????......
    yeah, Sherlock is free to fall in love, because he actually can, unlike his psycho brother who'd programmed him to believe otherwise.

    mk

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