Giftedness and genius: Crucial differences

By: Arthur J. Jensen

In C. P. Benbow & D. J. Lubinski (Eds.), Intellectual talent: Psychometric and social issues (p. 393–411). Johns Hopkins University Press.



  • Genius.
    • Socially recognized outstandingly creative achievement.
  • Multiple (common) traits combine to create (rare) exceptional achievement.
    • Exceptional achievement is a multiplicative function of a number of different traits.
    • Each of the traits is normally distributed.
    • In combination, they are so synergistic as to skew the resulting distribution of achievement.
    • Creates an upper tail of achievement, within which genius can be found.
  • Questions:
    • How many traits?
    • What are they?
  • Limits:
    • Upper limit seems to be astronomically higher than lower limit.
    • Upper limit can’t be characterized in terms of intelligence, problem-solving skills, etc.
  • Genius likely requires
    • Giftedness, natural ability.
    • Creativity.
    • Productivity.

The main difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits.

Giftedness, natural ability.

  • Consisting of “g”, along with some particular aptitude or talent.
    • May sometimes appear to be elusive, magical.
  • Does not assure exceptional achievement.
    • Probably a necessary condition for genius.
      • Giftedness and genius do not represent points on a continuum.
      • May even be orthogonal.
  • Indication of ability, not of potential achievement.
    • In many cases, gifted people lack focus (many members of MENSA…)
    • Genius involves both ability and achievement.
  • When giftedness interacts with other required variables, exceptional achievement (genius) may result.
    • Giftedness: normally distributed variable.
    • Genius: skewed distribution (multiple variables involved).


  • The bringing into being of something that has not previously existed.
  • Our understanding of creative acts is practically nil.
  • For example, chance configuration is not convincing.
    • Blind chance: random configuration of known elements provides original productive solution.
    • Requires critical selection and rejection screening, retention of promising candidates.
    • Similar to how new life emerges through the process of biological evolution (random mutation, natural selection).
    • Results in an inefficient and unlikely combinatorial and permutational explosion.
    • Also, not a helpful analogy to integrated complex neuronal actions involved in the manipulation of ideas.
    • Also, nature abhors a vacuum: intelligent people are unable to process anything in a purely random fashion.
    • [But, perhaps making random connections is relevant in this context.]
  • Trial and error, yes.
    • But not random.
  • Three sources of variance:
    • Ideational fluency: tap a flow of relevant ideas and play with them (brainstorming).
    • Relevance horizon: range or variety of ideas that seem relevant (>range, > creativity).
    • Suspension of critical judgement: intellectual risk takers.
  • All of these features, when taken to an extreme, are characteristic of psychosis.
    • In many creative geniuses, the potential for psychosis is buffered by other traits.
    • “Psychoticism”: degree of aggression, coldness, impersonal, unempathic, creative.
    • Relatives of geniuses usually not generous in personal recollections.


  • Price’s Law:
    • K persons make N contributions in a certain field.
    • N/2 contribution attributable to SQRT(K).
    • As K increases, the ratio of SQRT(K) / K decreases.
    • Meaning, 50% of contributions allocated to a smaller portion of K as K gets larger.
    • Elitism of major contributors.
  • Correlation between amount of contributions and importance.
    • High productivity is more common than great importance.
    • High productivity is no guarantee of great importance..
    • High productivity and triviality are more likely than low productivity and irrelevance.
    • But also, the greatest creative geniuses are often hugely productive.
    • And, the greatest creative geniuses have also often produced their share of trivia.
    • In short, high productivity is probably necessary, but not sufficient.
  • May be associated not with will, but more likely obsession.
  • Driven by high level of mental energy.
    • Heightened cortical arousal, brain stimulation.
      • Some type of brain / body chemistry.
    • Gout! (high serum urate levels).
      • Uric acid similar molecular structure as caffeine.

Other Characteristics of Genius

  • Sensitivity to (cognitive) experiences.
  • Unusually strong and long-term interests.
  • Curiosity.
  • Self-discipline.
  • Expert level skills.
    • Mastery (automation) requires practice.
  • Personal ideas and values.
    • Channels and focuses mental efforts (to the exclusion of everything else).

Educational Recommendations

  • Cultivate and select for high ability (IQ / g) and some type of prediction of high productivity.
  • A nation’s most important resource is the level of educated intelligence in its population.
    • It determines the quality of life.

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