21st-Century Evidence of the Stigma of Giftedness
by Dr. Jennifer R. Cross, Research Director
After working with and observing students with gifts and talents for many years, Larry Coleman (1985) proposed that they want to have normal social interactions, but discover that is not possible once others know about their giftedness. They overcome this challenge by managing the information others have about them. They might pretend they don’t know the answer to a question they really do. They might become the class clown, making their friends laugh to deflect interest in their intellect. They might hang out with friends who are known to not be studious. Larry’s stigma of giftedness paradigm was the foundation of a decades-long research agenda, most of it conducted with his colleague, the Center’s Executive Director, Tracy L. Cross. One of the most fruitful efforts at researching this phenomenon was a study of nearly 1,500 high school students attending the Tennessee Governors Schools in the mid-1980s (T. L. Cross, Coleman, & Stewart, 1993, 1995; T. L. Cross, Coleman, & Terhaar-Yonkers, 1991). These students answered questions about their beliefs concerning their similarity and difference from peers and about how they would respond in a variety of school-based scenarios that carried different levels of threat of exposure among peers.
In recent years, we have been using similar methods to examine the social cognition of Irish secondary school students with gifts and talents and a sample of low-income, high-ability middle school students in the United States. In both cases, we find support for the stigma of giftedness paradigm, although there are some interesting differences. We used three scenarios that were intended to get at different levels of threat.
Scenario 1: Onomatopoeia
- Evidence of knowledge for a single fact, low threat
- Others do not know the word but you do.
Scenario 2: Substitute Teacher
- Evidence of serious attitude toward school, moderate threat
- Others think torturing the substitute is OK, but you wanted to learn the topic.
Scenario 3: Biology Exam
- Evidence of studying and ease of performance, high threat
- Others think the test was hard, but you do not.
Responses to the scenarios were on a continuum from telling the truth (in the Biology Exam scenario, this is: “I thought it was kind of easy.”) to lying (“Yeah, that exam was a pain.”). In between these two were options that placated (finding common ground before stating the truth: “I probably studied as hard as you did, but the test wasn’t too hard.”), copped out (diverting attention from their response: “How long did you study?”), and prefacing a response with related, but unrevealing information (“Tests can be hard sometimes.”). Most students chose to tell the truth or come close to it on the first two scenarios, but we see more dissembling in all samples on the third scenario, the one that threatens most to expose a student’s giftedness. In the charts, you can see the comparison of the three samples.
Keep in mind the original sample was high school juniors and seniors, but the other two samples are from Grades 6–8. This may help to explain some of the differences in the responses. You may notice that the Irish students have a much higher percentage of students responding on the right end of the continuum. This may be an indication that being totally open about their giftedness may come at a greater cost among these students. That is certainly supported by the interviews we conducted with Irish students in our cross-cultural study of the social experience of giftedness. The Irish males, in particular, were regularly “slagged” or teased by their peers for “being smart.” A majority of the students in the original and low-income samples respond with items on the “truth” side of the continuum. The low-income middle schoolers were the most comfortable responding openly, with very few (7%) indicating they would lie to peers about their testing experience in the third, most threatening, scenario.
We asked the low-income, high-ability middle schoolers how students in their school see them, on a scale from 1 = exactly the same as to 5 = totally different from other students. In that study, which we recently presented at the Council for Exceptional Children conference (T. L. Cross & Cross, 2017), we also included a bullying instrument that allowed students to indicate the reasons they were victimized by peers. “They think I get good grades” was the most frequently selected reason they gave for being picked on. The most frequently selected reason other students were victimized was “What they wear.” How much our participants believed their peers considered them “different from” other students was correlated with the frequency of their own victimization (r = .39). Although these are the same students who were more likely to tell the truth in the scenarios, they may, over time, begin to worry about how their grades put them at risk of being victimized.
Students with gifts and talents have unique experiences in school. Knowing words their peers don’t know, wanting to learn when the other students want to play around, or performing better than others—these are less likely to happen to their average-ability peers. If they want to have normal interactions—and most of them do—they will need to figure out how to behave in social situations. Adults can help them by being aware and speaking honestly with students about how their giftedness matters in their social lives. The expectation that they should always “be themselves” may not be realistic. Schools are a place for learning and not only academic learning. At the Center, we will continue to research the lived experience of students in school, including the stigma of giftedness.
Coleman, L. J. (1985). Schooling the gifted. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Cross, T. L., Coleman, L. J., & Stewart, R. A. (1995). Psychosocial diversity among gifted adolescents: An exploratory study of two groups. Roeper Review, 17, 181–185.
Cross, T. L., Coleman, L. J., & Stewart, R. A. (1993). The school-based social cognition of gifted adolescents: An exploration of the stigma of giftedness paradigm. Roeper Review, 16, 37–40.
Cross, T. L., Coleman, L. J., & Terhaar-Yonkers, M. (1991). The social cognition of gifted adolescents in schools: Managing the stigma of giftedness. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 15, 44–55.
Cross, T. L., & Cross, J. R. (2017, April). Information management and bullying among high-ability, low-income middle school students. Presentation at the annual conference of the Council for Exceptional Children, Boston, MA.