DSM 5: Diagnosis Should Describe, Not Pathologize

I’ve been thinking about Dan Peters’s post about pathologizing the human condition. I understand and share his concerns about the influence of health insurance requirements on how people are diagnosed and how they can get help, but I think that’s actually a separate problem from the question of “should we diagnose”. If people had freer access to health care in general, and mental health care in particular, there would be less pressure to diagnose for the sake of having access to a reimbursable treatment.

Let’s assume for the moment that insurance is not a factor; the question of whether to diagnose still remains and hinges on the meaning we make of diagnosis itself. Does a diagnosis mean there is pathology? Does it mean there is something wrong that must be fixed? Is it a judgment on a person’s worth? How we answer those questions depends on the social context, and the effect of a diagnosis on a person depends partly on how that diagnosis is seen by society.

Instead of worrying that the DSM 5 is pathologizing temper tantrums and grief, what if we examine what we mean by “disorder” in the first place? Is a developmental difference like Asperger’s really a disorder? Do we call it a disorder because these differences cause suffering? Is every mental condition that causes suffering a disorder? Dyslexia is a similar example. Both can cause suffering but can also confer unusual strengths.

Is everything different from the norm a disorder? In contrast, PTSD could reasonably be seen as an emotional injury. PTSD is a documented human response to trauma. It certainly causes suffering, but if many “normal” people who are exposed to trauma develop PTSD, how can PTSD be abnormal?  It would be more accurate to describe it as a normal response to an abnormal situation.  And consider anxiety: anxiety is a normal human emotion and necessary for our survival. It’s only a problem if the anxiety is excessive or somehow inappropriate to the situation. So anxiety itself is not a disorder, and we wouldn’t want to completely eliminate it.  Still, all four of these are considered “disorders” by the DSM. Perhaps the DSM is unnecessarily pathologizing much of what it describes.

On the other hand, I think that the proliferation of diagnoses in the DSM 5 is the result of increasing specificity in our descriptions of mental conditions. That is not necessarily a bad thing! Categorizing mental conditions and exploring their differences are important steps toward greater understanding of the mind and brain. If our society conceptualizes those mental conditions as pathology, I don’t think that’s necessarily driven by the DSM. The DSM is a product of our social concept of mental health and seems to be a response to people seeking relief from various symptoms. If anything, it lags behind changes in society’s views on mental health and illness. Our lack of knowledge about the causes of many mental conditions means that the DSM must consist of symptom-focused descriptions. I would be the first to agree that these are subjective and people sometimes mistake the symptoms for the cause, but description and diagnosis still serve important purposes.

The word “diagnosis” comes from Greek and means “to know apart”, in other words, “to differentiate between”. In its function of describing people, diagnosis does not inherently pathologize them. That’s a judgment we place on the description after the fact. The best clinicians use diagnosis as a means to describe and explain a client’s experience.

Diagnosis can validate people’s experiences, empower people to seek treatment or accommodations, honor and encourage their adaptive efforts, and foster connections with others who share their experience. If I could change one thing about the DSM 5, it would not be to erase any of the descriptions, it would be the word “disorder”. Difference is not disorder. Emotional pain is not disorder. These are aspects of being human. Let’s keep describing human experience in all its variety, keep trying to help those who are suffering, but work to change how our society views those who are different or in pain.

This post originally appeared on The Creativity Post.

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Gender bias in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test

The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (RME) was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen to test aspects of his extreme male brain theory of autism. Recently, it has become popular with researchers studying affective empathy and autism, and is now available online in various places, mostly as a diagnostic tool for adults on the autism spectrum.  It has been revised, and the current version contains 36 items, each with four possible responses in a multiple choice format. Unfortunately, even in the revised version, the test items are highly gender biased which could affect its accuracy even though it has decent test-retest reliability.  I have analyzed the content of the test items, and broken them down by gender in order to highlight this problem and bring it to the attention of psychology researchers.

Restricted range of female images

Here are examples of the range of male eyes depicted in the RME:


The images are cropped black and white stills of actors in movies.  These are not taken from real life, and are not representative of the population although the items are balanced in terms of number of male and female eyes (18 female and 18 male).  There is a much greater range of ages represented by the male faces as compared to the female faces.  This may be due to the restricted pool (movies) that the items were drawn from.  All the female eyes are model-like in their symmetry, and all are made up with eye makeup and have plucked eyebrows.  In other words, all the female eyes are conforming to a gender stereotype of feminine beauty as seen in movies.


Restricted range of female emotional expression

I made a list of all the response choices (77 different choices) and found that there were only 48 different choices presented to the test subject as possible responses for the female eyes while there were 54 different choices presented for the male eyes.  Thus the range of possible emotions for the female eyes was restricted as compared to the male eyes.

Similarly, among the correct responses, there were 18 different correct responses for the male eyes (a unique response for each item), and only 15 for the female eyes since three of the female items (“fantasizing”, “preoccupied”, and “interested”) were duplicated.  Again, a greater emotional range  was available to describe the male eyes.  There was apparently no effort made to ensure parity between the range and types of emotions expressed in the male and female items.

Sexualized content of female items

Among the correct responses for female eyes, we find: “desire”, “flirtatious”, “interested” (twice), and “playful”.  Similar emotions in the male eyes are described as “anticipating” and “friendly”.  The correct responses for the female eyes have a strong bias toward expressing sexual interest directed toward the viewer.  This perception is reinforced by the camera angles and lighting that were used in the movies from which the items were drawn.


Also among the correct responses for the female eyes are: “contemplative”, “fantasizing” (twice), “preoccupied” (twice), and “reflective”.  The eyes in those items are not expressing much emotion.  Similar items for male eyes were described as “pensive” and “thoughtful”.  All of these indicate inwardly directed attention.  Fantasizing is not really an emotional state; it is an activity during which one could experience a variety of emotional states. When someone’s attention is directed inward, less communication about their emotional state is directed outward making the actual emotional states depicted in these items ambiguous.


Answering these ambiguous items correctly is more about eliminating answers than making a distinction between “thoughtful” and “fantasizing”.  Also, ambiguous items may muddy the results since test subjects may be more likely to project their own emotional states or be more suggestible to response items. Six female items (out of 18) were ambiguous as compared to two (out of 18) for the male items, so fully 33% of the female items were ambiguous compared to 11% of the male items.  This cluster of similar items among the correct answers for the female eyes further restricts the range of emotions expressed.

Using the RME to look for gender differences in empathy could be very problematic.  One study concludes that men have more trouble reading the emotions of women than of other men based on their performance on the RME.  Given that there is a significantly higher percentage of ambiguous items among the female eyes, and the range of emotions expressed in the female items is limited, I’m not sure that is a valid conclusion.  If the RME is to be used for testing hypotheses about autism and gender or gender and affective empathy, it needs to be redesigned with careful attention to gender parity in both the range of different ages and facial types presented as well as the range and types of emotions represented.


Baron-Cohen S. The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Science. 2002; 6(6):248-254.

Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I.  “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2001; 42: 241-251.

Best C, Minshew N, Strauss M. Gender discrimination of eyes and mouths by individuals with autism. Autism Research. 2010; 3(2): 88-93.

Fernández-Abascal E, Cabello R, Fernández-Berrocal P, Baron-Cohen S. Test-retest reliability of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test: a one-year follow-up study. Molecular Autism. 2013; 4:33.

Schiffer B, Pawliczek C, Müller B, Gizewski E, Walter H. Why Don’t Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes. PLOS One. 8(4): e60278.

This post originally appeared in The Creativity Post.

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Alert to Gifted Advocates: We Need to Change This Meme!

I just saw it retweeted:

“If you’re 130 IQ you’re as different from the mean as if you were 70 IQ on the other side. #NAGC ”

This sounds reasonable, right? Except for one problem: IQ scores are not measures of amount of ability (or need).  They are only a relative ranking of scores, corresponding to percentiles.  A 30 point interval on one part of the IQ scale may mean a much greater difference in abilities than a 30 point interval on another part of the scale, even if we are talking about the same IQ test!

How the norming process works

To understand why, you need a little background on how modern IQ tests are scored.  When IQ tests are developed, the test items are first tried by a norming group.  This is a group of people who are supposed to be representative of the population in terms of their range of ages, abilities, genders, ethnicities, and other factors.  The test items are ranked according to difficulty, and raw scores are calculated for each subtest.  Within each age group, those raw scores form a distribution: most people score somewhere near average for that age group and fewer people score very high or very low.  This distribution is normed by fitting the scores to a normal distribution curve with an average of 10 and a standard deviation of 3.  Thus for each raw score, there is a correspondingscaled score ranging from 1 – 19 for that subtest.  This norming process spreads the raw scores out unevenly because the scaled score depends on how many other people scored below a given raw score.  In other words, a difference of 4 points in raw score could correspond to a greater difference in scaled scores in one part of the distribution than in another.  The scaled scores tell us only how unusual (how many standard deviations from average) someone’s performance is on each subtest.

Once the scaled scores are determined for each subtest, the total of the scaled scores for a certain group of the subtests is similarly fitted to a normal distribution.  This generates a table that the psychologist uses to look up the Full Scale IQ score, known as a standard score.  This is a score ranging from 1- 160 with an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.  Thus the FSIQ is a measurement of how unusual the sum of the scaled scores of the subtests is.  A major drawback to the FSIQ is that when one subtest score is unusually low and another is unusually high, these differences are masked in the sum.  Major tests like the WISC-IV take this into account by not allowing a valid FSIQ to be calculated when the subtest scores are too widely scattered.

Making sense of raw scores

Could we go back to the raw scores and compare abilities that way?  Even that is not a straightforward process.  For some subtests, like digit span, it might make sense to say that a person who can remember 6 digits has a memory that is as much better than someone who can remember 3 digits as it is worse than someone who can remember 9 digits.  But for other subtests, it’s not so easy to quantify differences in amount of difficulty between the test items.  Is the first block design puzzle as much easier compared to the second as the second is compared to the third?  This is not clear.  All we can say to compare people is that this person assembled three puzzles successfully while another person assembled only one, and that assembling three puzzles happens much more often in the population of that age group than assembling only one puzzle.

This meme is everywhere in the gifted universe:

“The child of 160 IQ (top 0.01%) is as different from the child of 130 IQ (top 2%) as that child is from the child of average ability.”

~Leta Hollingworth, Children Above 180 IQ (1942) [1]

“There is the numerical answer: a child of IQ 160 is as different from a moderately gifted child of 130, as that child is from an average child of 100. “ [2]

“Now move in the opposite direction from 100. An IQ score up to one standard deviation above 100 is considered normal, or average. Move up one standard deviation is mildly gifted. That means that a child with a score of 130 is as different from a child with an IQ of 100 as is the child with an IQ of 70, a score which definitely qualifies a child for special services. Move up one more standard deviation and we move into the range of moderately gifted (130-144). The same range on the other side of 100 is the mildly retarded range.” [3]

“Let’s pretend that you take an average child with an IQ of 100. Take this child and put them into a classroom where everyone else’s IQ is 70 and below. In other words you are taking an average child and putting him or her into a school environment where all the classmates are mentally retarded. Not only are these classmates mentally retarded but the curriculum is also geared for the mentally retarded children. “ [4]

“What’s the difference? Gifted children tend to think differently and learn more quickly than their peers. Compare a gifted child (IQ = 130) to an average child (IQ=100) you will see the difference: the gifted child learns quicker, thinks deeper, and draws conclusions more easily. Compare that gifted child (IQ=130) to the highly gifted child (IQ=160). Again, you will see the difference, in many of the same ways. Now compare the highly gifted child to the normal child, and you face a chasm that by the end of elementary school may place these two children as much as 5 years apart in mental age.

“There’s another way to look at it. The difference between the exceptionally gifted and the average child is the same as the difference between the average child and the mentally handicapped child of IQ 40. That’s a big difference!” [5]

Why does this matter?

  • As advocates we should strive to be accurate. Our credibility is at stake!
  • As advocates we should strive to educate—not spread misinformation just because it is a handy analogy to make a point.
  • Think about how our advocacy is perceived by others: When we make a comparison that implies average people are mentally impaired compared to gifted people, we alienate most of our listeners.

I understand that the goal is to build awareness of the very real needs of gifted children. So instead let’s use the real meaning of IQ scores: a high (or low) score is unusual. Unusual kids are likely to need unusual accommodations.

Please, make a small change, gifted advocates! Be accurate, educate, and build awareness without alienating others. Let’s start using a new meme:


Unusual kids

are likely to need

unusual accommodations.

In order to help advocates communicate how unusual gifted scores are in the population, I created this graphic.

The orange squares correspond to the distribution of scores 130 and above in the population, and the purple square is for 145 and above.  The green and yellow squares represent scores below 130.  I used two colors to help people visualize groups of 32 students in  “classrooms”.  I chose 130 because it is two standard deviations above average, and is often used as a cutoff for gifted programs.  This chart illustrates the rarity of these scores.  On average, a teacher who has 32 students per year could expect to see a highly gifted student with an IQ of 145 or above once in a 32 year career.  In practice, this may happen more or less often because the population is not uniform from one school to the next and because different groups of students may score above 145 on different IQ tests, increasing the number of opportunities for scoring high.  Still, I believe the chart can help illustrate that as a student’s IQ score increases, the likelihood that the school’s regular curriculum will be a good fit decreases.

[1] http://www.pegy.org.uk/page2.html

[2] http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/highly_profoundly.htm

[3] http://giftedkids.about.com/od/gifted101/qt/IQ_scores.htm

[4] http://www.alifeofthemind.com/2011/02/13/mensa-iq-the-30-point-gap-and-the-outsiders/

[5] http://vcbconsulting.com/gtworld/gttest.htm

Post updated: 10/13/2013 to include background information on the scoring of IQ tests and the rarity chart illustrating the IQ score distribution for gifted students.

This post originally appeared on The Creativity Post.

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Prodigy, pathology, and a review of The Einstein Syndrome

Jacob Barnett


Jacob Barnett of recent 60 Minutes fame, could have been a poster child for Thomas Sowell’s Einstein Syndrome. Although he is a math prodigy, Jacob did not talk until age two, and exhibits many of the characteristics Sowell identifies as part of the Einstein Syndrome:

  • Outstanding and precocious analytical abilities and/or musical abilities
  • Outstanding memories
  • Strong wills
  • Highly selective interests, leading to unusual achievements in some areas and disinterest and ineptness in others
  • Delayed toilet training
  • Precocious ability to read and/or use numbers and/or use computers
  • Close relatives in occupations requiring outstanding analytical and/or musical abilities
  • Unusual concentration and absorption in what they are doing
  • Delayed speech development

In his book, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, Sowell paints a picture that any parent of a child diagnosed with speech delay, autism, or Asperger’s would want to embrace: their child’s late speech does not indicate a problem, but may be a sign of giftedness. As evidence for his theory, he points to talented thinkers and performers, such as famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein, India’s self-taught mathematical genius Ramanujan, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein as examples of gifted late-talkers.



Sowell’s primary motivation is to stop pathologizing these late-talking children who are also gifted in specific domains. He rightly raises concerns that characteristics of giftedness such as early reading, selective interests and unusual concentration can be mistaken for the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders or Asperger’s syndrome, especially by school psychologists and therapists who rely on checklists for such diagnoses. Early reading can be mistaken for hyperlexia, the precocious ability to read—but without comprehension. And selective interests can be misinterpreted as obsessive or pathological, even though many gifted children have unusual interests and uncommon depth of knowledge on specific topics. Sowell believes children with Einstein Syndrome are also strong-willed, a trait found in many gifted children, and are likely to be misdiagnosed because of their refusal to cooperate within the parameters of testing. These are all important factors for parents to consider, however a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome may no longer be viewed as being stigmatizing as Sowell implies. In fact, Jacob Barnett turns out to be an example of the increased awareness and public acceptance of autism spectrum disorders—Jacob was diagnosed with autism which he feels is the source of many of his outstanding abilities.

Sowell cautions against automatically assuming that late-talkers need speech therapy. He argues that it is difficult to tell whether the therapy is effective, or whether time and maturity would bring the same result. He makes a distinction between late-talkers who have the ability to comprehend language, such as children with the Einstein Syndrome, and those who do not, in order to identify children who need therapeutic intervention. The book includes anecdotes of interventions that parents felt were actually harmful to their children’s development. Sowell suggests that children with the Einstein Syndrome will begin to talk when their brains reach a crucial stage of development, and that trying to train or force them to talk sooner is fruitless. This idea is supported by his “no free lunch” model of brain development: children with precocious analytical abilities may be developing those by diverting resources from areas of the brain responsible for expressive language. On the other hand, Sowell’s sample of case studies was taken from a small group of self-selected families who were dissatisfied with the diagnoses and treatments their children had received. He doesn’t take into account that many others, such as Jacob, have benefited from early speech therapy.

While The Einstein Syndrome offers a hopeful interpretation of delayed language development in children who otherwise exhibit high ability, without further research it could mislead caregivers and significantly impact the healthy development of young children. Sowell’s theory leaves many questions unanswered, and sends mixed messages to parents about whether or not to have their late-talkers evaluated by professionals. Sowell, whose expertise is in economics, repeatedly encourages parents to reject the diagnoses of professionals in educational psychology and medicine. His understanding of autism spectrum disorders is not nuanced, and he is not an expert on autism.

The window of time during which young children can easily acquire language is only a few years, and there are great benefits to early intervention for children on the autism spectrum or with speech delay. The wait-and-see approach, advocated by Sowell, diminishes the opportunity for language acquisition in young children during the period when the brain is most malleable. While The Einstein Syndrome discusses a real problem—the misdiagnosis of gifted late-talkers—it does not solve that problem, and creates a new “syndrome” which unfortunately encourages non-professionals to diagnose late-talkers based on an unsubstantiated theory.

Suggested Resources:

Book Misdiagnosis and Dual-Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults

Article Misdiagnosis and Dual-Diagnosis of Gifted Children

PHP Blog Supporting Your Gifted Child: How to Find a Therapist


This post originally appeared on the National Association for Gifted Children’s Parenting for High Potential blog.


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Advice for the Next Generation



I’ve seen this floating around several times.  It wasn’t actually written by Bill Gates (the real author was Charles J. Sykes,) and its drill sergeant style message doesn’t seem like something Gates would endorse. I decided to write my own version.

Rule 1. Life is not fair, so speak up about inequities and do your best to make life fairer.

Rule 2. Be confident in your abilities. Don’t listen to people who don’t care about the feelings of others.

Rule 3. Money, cars, and gadgets are not equivalent to “success.”

Rule 4. If your teacher is a bully, switch classes. If your boss is a bully, switch jobs. You don’t need toxic people in your life.

Rule 5. Flipping burgers can earn you some money and help you gain work experience, but it’s not a career. Aspire to something more.

Rule 6. You’ll mess up. Your parents will mess up. That’s part of being human. Don’t beat yourself or others up for mistakes, just do your best to learn from them.

Rule 7. Before you were born, your parents had different lives than they do now. The world is changing rapidly, and it’s important to pay attention to how we are affecting the environment.

Rule 8. Don’t buy into the idea that the artificial competition of school has anything to do with leading a productive and satisfying life.

Rule 9. If you can, travel, study, and work in other countries. You need to experience more than the town where you grew up to understand how you can be part of global society.

Rule 10. Entertainment and the media present a distorted view of the world. Question what you see.

Rule 11. Be a nerd. Be a geek. In other words, be passionate in your pursuit of knowledge and develop your expertise.

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The Needs of the Few


Every major character in Star Trek is portrayed as highly intelligent, creative, super competent, and a leader, but Spock stands out among them with his incredible mental abilities. Half human, half alien, highly sensitive but emotionally guarded, he struggles at first to be accepted by his crew mates and must learn to respect the paradox of human frailty and potential. His commitment to logic engenders both admiration and resentment in others.

Spock’s story mirrors the intensity, commitment to learning, isolation, and even alienation that many gifted people experience. It also gives us a glimpse into the roles that society expects gifted people to play. Spock is valued by others for his abilities, but also for his selfless service, and his sacrifices earn him the respect and admiration of his crew mates. In an iconic scene from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices his life to save the ship and crew.

Needs of Many


Spock says to his friend, James Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” The message could not be clearer or more logical: individual needs are less important than the needs of the larger group. Our society sends the same message to gifted students who are told that they have a responsibility to develop their gifts for the benefit of society, and that they must not call attention to their struggles as a gifted person because making comparisons of intelligence hurts the feelings of others.

Then the Star Trek story takes an interesting turn in the next movie, The Search for Spock. James Kirk and the rest of the crew rescue the reborn Spock from the Genesis planet at enormous personal cost. Spock, not yet fully recovered, asks him why, and Kirk replies, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”



This is also one of our cultural values! We value individuality, individual drive, and we strive meet the needs of individuals. Especially when our close friends and families are involved, many are willing to sacrifice to meet the needs of an individual.

By definition, gifted people are a minority, and I see advocacy on behalf of the gifted as honoring the needs of the few. Yes, the needs of the many matter, but the needs of the few also matter. We need to be able to use the words “gifted” and “highly intelligent”. We need to be able to speak about the things that make gifted people different and their specific needs, even though this may cause others to feel pangs of insecurity. Sometimes, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

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Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy?

A taboo topic?

I have been to several conferences and read many books on giftedness, but one subject that is little discussed is the social/emotional effects on gifted children of being envied. It’s as if we are hoping that by not talking about it, it will go away, and we will not run the risk of being accused of bragging.

Advanced Squelching

A few months ago, I was struck by the candor and self-awareness of Joyce Slaton in her blog post, “I hate hearing about your gifted child.” She said, in part:

I get it that the moms are proud, and certainly, I don’t mind hearing about the kids’ other wonderful accomplishments. It’s the gifted thing that gets me… But why am I comparing? Why do I care? Normal is a good thing! Normal is great! Normal is what I prayed for. But that’s a lie. I didn’t. I prayed for better than normal. I wanted the Amazing Super Child who was going to prove to the world how 5-star my DNA is (believe me, typing that out, I realize how stupid that sounds). Maybe that’s why I feel like crap when a mom I know brags about the advanced-aheadedness of her kid. Do the braggers even notice that I fall silent and get downcast, listening? I try not to let it show. I know the moms are just excited and proud, and maybe I’d feel the same way if I had a lot of stuff to brag about.

Her post generated over 400 comments! Clearly, there are many parents who feel the same way. There were also many comments from parents of gifted kids who felt that they were being unfairly accused of bragging.


Envy mediates self-interest and group interests in social groups

What I want to focus on first are Joyce’s questions: “Why am I comparing? Why do I care?” To answer that, we should first ask, “Why do humans feel envy?”

“Envy can be defined as feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that arise when our personal qualities, possessions, or achievements do not measure up to those of someone significant to us.” (Salovey & Rodin, 1985; Silver & Sabini, 1978a)

Envy has both positive and negative aspects. In the positive form, we admire the object of our envy and seek to emulate that person. It’s the negative aspect that we consider socially unacceptable: we seek to steal or destroy the object of our envy.There’s also evidence that envy plays a greater role in our reactions than we’re consciously aware of. The stronger and more negative the envy, the more likely our awareness of it is to be suppressed. Silver and Sabini (1978b) pointed out that

Since an attribution of envy presupposes that the individual has been diminished or at least that he perceives this to be the case, to be seen as envious is doubly damaging. Not only have we committed a “sin,” but we have tacitly acknowledged our inferiority. Considering this, people usually find it very difficult to admit that they envy someone else.

What I’ve read about envy mostly considers it the result of individual self-interest. Salovey and Rodin (1984) proposed three eliciting conditions of envy:

  • Negative or esteem diminishing information about oneself with regard to another person
  • High self-relevance of that information
  • High similarity to or close relationship with the reference person.

I propose that envy also serves the function of mediating individual interests (resources, status, self-esteem) and group interests (sharing, stable social hierarchy). The basis for envy is the social principle of fairness. We see this principle in other primates. In primate social groups, if one individual takes more than his share, the others become envious. That individual is seen as committing a social transgression, and is challenged by the group or by more dominant individuals. In this way, envy maintains resource sharing among individuals in social species.

Envy also maintains a stable social hierarchy in the group because it is moderated by social status. Envy is held in check when the individual who has more resources also has greater status and can defend that status. In other words, if a weaker individual couldn’t challenge the stronger one in a test of dominance, then the weaker individual’s envy must be suppressed. This is also observed in humans who experience more intense envy of people they are in direct competition with than they do toward people they see as being much higher status (e.g. admired movie stars).

On the other hand, envy is given free rein when the group perceives that an individual has more than his share of resources than his status would merit. Because of this, individuals who experience envy automatically seek to justify their feelings with the rest of the group. They rationalize their responses by attributing social transgressions to the envied person. In this way, envy helps individuals transform their own interests into group interests. The rationalization process also serves to cover up the individual’s self-interested goals, and may even conceal it from his own conscious knowledge. This is more likely to occur when the envy is intense.

Outliers inspire envy

Envy occurs whether or not it is “justified”. We may envy someone for taking more than his share of resources (a behavior over which he has control), but we also envy someone for being more beautiful or intelligent than we are (things the envied person doesn’t control). In the case of beauty or intelligence, if a person is much more beautiful or much smarter than everyone else in the group, that person will be in the position of always defending their right to that higher level of status, and of constantly being envied by those in competition with them. The group may work together to undermine the status of the envied person, and make things more “equal”. As James Fenimore Cooper said, “The tendency of democracies is, in all things, to mediocrity.”


In order to understand interactions like what we see on Slaton’s blog, the key is that when people experience envy, they automatically generate rationalizations to justify the actions they want to take, and to seek support from other group members. Sometimes these rationalizations are logical and support the group interests of resource sharing, for example, “It’s not fair for John Doe to take more water for his farm just because he lives upstream.” Sometimes they are fabrications that other group members recognize as false, and are considered socially unacceptable expressions of envy. But they can also be fabrications that the group accepts because they are expedient justifications for actions that are seen as being in the best interests of the group.

Envy can reinforce stereotypes

The latter case is more likely to occur when the person who is envied has an outlier trait that cannot be shared with the group and that is seen as serving the envied individual’s interest alone. In Slaton’s blog, the trait in question is having a gifted child. The parent of the gifted child cannot share the child’s intellectual gifts with the other parents’ children. Those who envy the parent of the gifted child tend to immediately attribute their negative feelings (actually generated by the envy) to some social transgression on the part of the envied parent. In this case, the charge is “bragging”. This makes sense, because any discussion of the gifted child’s abilities makes their envy salient, and they naturally want to avoid that emotional discomfort. Parents are not only defending their own self-concepts as good parents and intelligent people, but even more vitally, they are defending their own good opinion of their offspring. Slaton’s blog is again an excellent example of this mechanism because she goes on to talk about what she values in her own daughter: kindness and being thoughtful of others.

Meeting the Principal

In fact, even if the parents of gifted kids say nothing about their children’s abilities, they are still often perceived as committing some social transgression. The list of these transgressions corresponds very closely to the negative stereotypes of gifted people:

Negative stereotypes of the gifted

  • Bragging
  • Showing off
  • Being a snob
  • Aloofness
  • Evil genius
  • Disrespectful of authority

 Social transgressions that parents of gifted kids are often accused of

  • Bragging
  • Showing off
  • Feeling superior
  • Cheating
  • Mistreating their children by pushing them academically

These accusations of social transgressions serve the purpose of reducing the salience of the envy (If parents of gifted kids are not allowed to talk about their kids, then I won’t feel envious) or denying that the children are actually gifted (If the parents are cheating and helping kids with work, or pushing their children inhumanely to produce high achievers, then the children are not really gifted.) They also serve the purpose of reducing the status of parents of gifted children by making them appear to be bad parents or selfish people. In some cases, this extends to justifying social exclusion or outright bullying of gifted children and their families.

Showing Off

“But wait!” you say. “When they talk about what their gifted kids can do, they really are bragging!” Now we come to what impressed me so much about Slaton’s blog post: she recognizes that if she were in the position of having a gifted child, she would want to talk about her child’s abilities, too. As parents, we are not given a manual on how to raise our children. We have to make choices without knowing how things will turn out. We all know it’s impossible to follow all the advice out there on child rearing, so we seek feedback and reassurance from other parents. Are we doing a good job? Are our kids developmentally on track? Ordinarily, this works pretty well. Most people’s kids are developmentally similar, but when a child is gifted, it becomes socially unacceptable for her parents to talk about her developmental trajectory. Here is an example of a normal scenario leading to envy and charges of bragging or pushing.

Scenario: Two moms, Abby and Betty, are sitting on a bench at the park. Abby introduces herself to Betty and starts asking about Betty’s child.

Abby: Is that your daughter in the green over there? How old is she?

Betty: She’s two.

Abby: Oh! (feeling uncomfortable) I saw her reading that sign…

Betty: (feeling uncomfortable) Is that your daughter on the slide?

Abby: Yes. She’s four. She isn’t reading yet. I don’t believe in that flashcard stuff. Kids should be allowed to be kids.

Notice that Betty has few choices in this exchange that could lead to a good outcome. She can let the assumption stand that she drills her child for hours with flashcards every day and doesn’t allow her to “be a kid” (despite the evidence that she does take her to parks), or she can deny using the flashcards and say truthfully that her daughter learned to read spontaneously which will lead to Abby perceiving her as bragging. Also note that neither Abby nor Betty is feeling good about this interaction. The usual script has failed them both, and neither is getting a feeling of support from the other.

One thing Betty might try to do is find a way to deny being in an enviable position. She might say, “Well, if only I could get her to stop pooping her pants.” Or, “I am looking forward to when she is four. She still won’t sleep in her own bed.” This tactic may soothe Abby’s feelings, but it comes at a price: Betty is forced to think of her own child in a negative light, and to express negative feelings about her child in front of the child. If this happens occasionally, it probably doesn’t have much impact, but the since Betty’s daughter’s abilities are rare, Betty will have to use this approach much more often than other parents.

Envy affects the social development of gifted kids

During infancy and early childhood, in highly gifted children, giftedness may already be apparent due to precocious development of speech, reading, and/or math abilities. Gifted children may also have other behavioral differences such as high levels of activity and alertness that make parenting a challenge. The child’s precocious abilities create conflict within the larger social context which is an obstacle to the development of a realistic self-concept and trust in adults. Parents of gifted children report feeling uncomfortable about mentioning their children’s abilities in front of other parents. Other adults may react strangely toward the gifted child, for example, a two year old reading labels aloud in the supermarket may attract attention. This attention is sometimes positive (Wow! How old is he? He can read already? What a smart boy!) but sometimes negative (How can you do that to your child! You should let her be a child, not force her to practice reading all day!) Unfortunately, even the positive response does not promote a healthy self-concept because when a child’s abilities are always called out, the child concludes that these are the most important aspects of his self, and perhaps the only facet of himself that is valued. The negative responses (which are often delivered with a judgmental, angry demeanor) are also damaging to the parent/child relationship, and to a child’s trust of other adults.

Highly gifted children whose abilities are very out of the ordinary can inspire shocking displays of envy in adults. One young boy, who learned to read before he was three years old, was granted early entrance to Kindergarten at age four. When the time came for the cute little “graduation” ceremony in the spring, a parent objected to his participation saying that he was not really in Kindergarten because he was too young, and that allowing him to “graduate” Kindergarten would be cheating because he had not achieved everything that his own son had achieved. I put quotes around “graduate” because in that state, Kindergarten is not legally required and there are no standards for such a graduation. Here, the gifted student’s family was accused of a (fabricated) social transgression, and the other parent successfully recruited allies on the school staff and convinced them to exclude the boy from the end of year party.

Top Dog

Middle childhood, or the grade school period, marks the child’s first friendship experiences with other children. Unfortunately for gifted children, most of their exposure to other children happens in the context of school. In the school context, competition and comparisons between the abilities of the children are more prominent than during ordinary play interactions. Age-based segregation in grades contributes to these comparisons because all children in a given age group are expected to meet certain standards. Students are aware of each other’s grades and performance in school, and high achievers are often the targets of bullying. It is likely that this bullying is the result of envy. Bullies seek to reduce the status of their targets by physically dominating them or by undermining them socially.

The gifted child also must navigate relationships with teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are not immune to envy, and this creates conflict that the gifted child is forced to resolve. We would predict that teachers’ envy would manifest itself as the perception of the gifted child as socially transgressing, and research bears this out. (Geake & Gross, 2008) Although the teachers did not directly report feelings of envy, they reported fears that the gifted child would undermine the teacher’s authority (the teachers’ anxiety seems to center on fears that the gifted child is subversive and not pro-social). Gifted children who know more about some topics than the teacher can be threatening to the teacher. Young gifted children may not realize this and helpfully correct the teacher in front of the class, undermining the teacher’s status.

Ruining the Curve

This research also shows that teachers may have unconscious negative responses to gifted children in their classrooms. An envious teacher’s behavior toward the gifted child sends subtle signals to the other children that the gifted child is a threat and should be ostracized. The gifted child also receives this message and feels rejected. Envious teachers can also unconsciously undermine the gifted child by attacking his self confidence through criticism or by constantly testing him. This creates anxiety in the gifted child and promotes the conditions for unhealthy perfectionism and underachievement.

Some teachers may be concerned about protecting gifted students from the envy of others. I often see educators recommending that gifted students not be grade accelerated because they will face “social problems”. Gifted programs in schools often include differentiated instruction. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice it is rarely well-executed. Concerns about envy may play a large role in the teacher’s reluctance to give different work to the gifted students in their classes, and the reluctance of some gifted students to be seen doing different work.

Feeling Bad

Sometimes, teachers avoid differentiation because they want to spare other students from feelings of envy. In one anecdotal example, when a gifted 5th grade girl in a 5th/6th combo class (where she had been placed so she could work at her own pace) finished the 5th grade math book in a few months and asked to move on to the 6th grade math book, the teacher told her that she couldn’t do that because “the 6th grade boys would feel bad.” Not only did this teacher deny the gifted student an opportunity to learn, she also sent the student the tacit message that her giftedness “makes others feel bad” and should be hidden.

Gifted children, who are often sensitive and perceptive, respond in various ways to these mixed messages about whether their intelligence and achievements are good things or not. Some of them withdraw and stop exhibiting gifted behaviors. They underachieve in school and intentionally withhold what they know from the teacher. Some of them act out in frustration at their rejection by the group, and some reject the group in turn. When the teacher’s envy is a problem, the gifted student is in a no-win situation. If he hangs back and doesn’t participate, he is seen as aloof or uncooperative. If he participates enthusiastically, he is seen as a show-off. Some carefully balance on a narrow middle path of acting as average as possible, and denying their true selves.

Singled Out

The responses of others to the gifted child set him up for increased anxiety and sensitivity. Being excluded from the group creates anxiety, and increased anxiety can lead to psychomotor agitation, emotional lability, and/or withdrawal. Many of these behavioral responses correspond with overexcitabilities observed in gifted students. The constant vigilance required to carefully navigate around the envy triggers of others can contribute to increased sensitivity. In this way, I think anxiety over exclusion from the group contributes to the observed intensity and sensitivity of gifted students. The increased anxiety and sensitivity are in turn interpreted as social defects inherent in the gifted child, and unfortunately, envious adults can unwittingly reinforce these behavior patterns because they are eager to find fault with the gifted child. Even parents can overemphasize these difficulties in their own children in their attempts to convince others that their children are not in an enviable position.

Adolescence is a period of increasing competition and increased attention to differences as teens build their identities. (Massé& Gagné, 2002) The interactions increase in complexity as teens practice imagining the mental states of others. They assume that downward comparisons should lead to reassurance and pride, and therefore interpret the gifted teens as prideful and snobbish. Meanwhile, the gifted teens are faced with stereotype threat, “Gifted kids think they’re better,” and are forced to cope with it by denying the stereotype and working hard not to confirm it (Steele, 1997). Teachers in middle and high school may have reactions to gifted students similar to those of grade school teachers: unconscious negative affect. They may single out the gifted student, modeling exclusion for the other students. Gifted teens are faced with a choice: deny the self to gain acceptance of the group or preserve their gifted identity and face exclusion.

The problem of dealing with other people’s envy is one of the central problems of gifted development. This is why gifted programs are so important for gifted kids; they need to be in an environment where the teachers expect to teach gifted students and welcome them, and where the discrepancies between the students’ abilities and their age-peers are not so dramatic so that competition and comparison generate less envy. It is not because they can’t make friends with non-gifted kids, or because gifted people are elitist. Like everyone else, they need a social group where they can feel accepted as they are, and where they can receive positive feedback for their achievements.


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Thanks to Margo Burns and Nina Paley for creating Comic-O-Matic, which I used to create the images in this piece.

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