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Interview with David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow
The following interview took place at the American Psychological Association Conference in Toronto in July of 2003
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There are a lot of different ways to conceptualize intelligence, and you can—You can even of course study intelligence within one individual. There are a lot of different mental functions, like language, generalization, memory. But, when you study intelligence you tend to look at individual differences. And the models I’ve found most useful are the models by Jack Carroll and Dick Snow, who conceptualized—They actually build on decades of psychometric research to build a hierarchical model of intelligence. It has a general factor at its summit—at the top of it—that accounts for approximately half of the variation in individual differences in human intellectual functions, and people name that function differently. Some talk about it as an intellectual sophistication function, general intelligence, g. They’re pretty much the same thing. And then there are specific abilities—specific factors—that are more molecular, that have to do with spatial reasoning, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning. And they go down to more molecular strands after that.
When I was an undergraduate I remember studying about the gifted, and I was fascinated by the work of Terman. And I can even remember talking to my undergraduate advisor about the possibility of studying creativity someday because I thought it was so interesting. But I thought so many aspects of psychology were interesting. In fact, when I was an undergraduate I took enough psychology credit for two undergraduate degrees. And even when I went into graduate school I couldn’t decide on what I wanted to major in, so I got a double major in counseling and experimental psychology. And as I was working on my dissertation, running pigeons in the behavioral pharmacology lab—and enjoying the experiment, but realizing at the same time that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I wanted to get back and to work with people. And I decided to do a postdoc at the University of Illinois in the quantitative methods program, where I could study more about individual differences with a distinguished professor named Lloyd Humphreys. And I did that for three years. And what I—What I found especially intriguing too, was the growth that these precocious students were able to achieve in such short time frames. I thought it was fascinating—their potential for growth. And after a three-year postdoc there—I of course had read a lot about the study of mathematically precocious youth, and knew that Camilla [Benbow] was at Iowa State University. And a job appeared in their counseling program. And I applied for it and got it. And have loved it ever since.
The first influence that I had was my first psychology course by a counseling psychologist named Henry Borrow, and I knew as a freshman in the fall quarter my first year that I was going to me a psychology major after that. I enjoyed that course so much. And in fact, I took a psychology course the next quarter and realized at that time that I could not take any more psychology courses until I got all my prerequisites out of the way because that’s all I would study. I would only study psychology. So, I accomplished all of my prerequisites and studied psychology full-time. And as an undergraduate I worked with two personality psychologists, Jim Butcher and Auke Tellegen, and they had great influences on me. We published some work on psychological androgyny. And in the experimental area, Kenneth MacCorquodale and Travis Thompson had great influence on me. And we published a number of theoretical articles on symbolic communication and behavioral units of human behavior. As a graduate student, the primary influences were René Dawis, who was my counseling Ph.D. advisor, and Travis Thompson, who was my dissertation advisor. And throughout that entire time, probably my greatest spiritual mentor was Paul Meehl, because we had several hundred hours of conversations together as an undergraduate and graduate student, and subsequently as a postdoc. And he really provided a lot for me in terms of my training and scientific take on things. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Lloyd Humphreys had a great influence on me, and we still continue to collaborate. And after that, after I joined the faculty at Iowa State, then Camilla [Benbow] and Julian Stanley were great influences on me.
Well, when you look at the development that these kids—now adults—are able to achieve, you want to understand it. So you go to the psychological literature. And I come from a tradition of individual differences and learning theory, and in individual differences, the attributes that people tend to study come from three domains: Human abilities, personality and educational and vocational interest. And we know about abilities. That’s how we define these—identify these—kids for longitudinal tracking. But what we’ve come to appreciate more and more is that specific abilities are lightly correlated with vocational—different vocational interest patterns. And they’re lightly correlated with different personality patterns, too. So although these correlations are small, in the .2 to .3 range—when you select intellectually precocious kids at the extremes of verbal ability, spatial ability or quantitative ability—you take distinct subsets of personality dimensions and dimensions of vocational interest, and they really form unique constellations at the extremes. They look like qualitatively different types. But in reality, most of the variation seems to be traced back to systematic sources of individual differences in human behavior. It’s just like looking at the athletes at the Olympics. Exceptional athletes—and you can classify them by their body build and weight—but they fit smoothly back into the full range of humanity. You’re just watching them at the extremes when you see them compete at the Olympics. And it’s the same with these gifted kids. These unique constellations of personal attributes are differentially tuned to different niches in the environment. C.P. Snow distinguished between scientists and humanists, and now people talk about the third culture, the technology culture—the culture of the technicians—as maybe a spatially gifted culture. But it’s helped me understand the unique patterns that we see at the extreme, and to not think of them as qualitatively different. They’re just in points of extremes of humanity that we’ve selected using different dimensions of intellectual capacity.
And I think I’ve modified my expectations some, in terms of what types of criteria we should look at to validate our models of talent development. We use a model of vocational adjustment that we’ve extended to educational arenas for identifying needs, values, interests and abilities that differentially tailor people toward different types of development and help them to conceptualize their strengths and weaknesses. And what we have discovered in our work is that not everyone wants to develop their talents to their full potential. When we did our 20-year longitudinal follow-up, and we looked at students we identified at age 13, and now that they were in their mid thirties, we found about 20% of them only wanted to work a 40 hour work week or less, whereas 15% of them were working 70 or more hours a week. Well, for this ability range over a several year period, that’s a huge amount of change differences that are going to result from that. And people were satisfied with their lives. And they were just making different choices. And there are also intervening variables that operate to attenuate predictions…That you don’t want to harness on the psychological models that you build. For example you can have a great model of talent development, but you can take it to a given individual that you are working with—and maybe they don’t want to leave Chicago. Or they can only work 9 to 5 or they don’t want to travel. And there are all kinds of ideographic things that you encounter when you work with a person individually. So we use general parameters of individual differences, like human abilities, interests and personality, to give students and clients models so that they can really take charge of their personal development and develop the way they want to.
There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that there aren’t gender differences in general intelligence. Overall, the male and female means are right on top of one another. But there are gender differences in the specific abilities. There are some domains where women are a little more able, especially some verbal domains. And there are other domains, like three-dimensional spatial visualization in mathematical reasoning, that males are a little more able. And if you follow up our participants—And when we looked at them at age 33—We were delighted to see that there weren’t gender differences in the amount of educational credentials that they were securing, the level of educational credentials that they were securing, their—how successful they perceived themselves to be. But they were choosing to develop in different areas. More women than men who were mathematically precocious, for example, were choosing careers in law and medicine. And when we looked at the outcomes and how they felt about their life, we really couldn’t see anything wrong with that. There’s a lot of attention nowadays about all the loss of talent because women are dropping out of the math-science pipeline. And that’s true. But no one has looked at those women to see what they’re doing. Well, they’re going on and getting careers in law, in business, in medicine. And sometimes I think we conceptualize the world of work too categorically. Especially now; the world of work is becoming much more multidimensional. And if you’re a lawyer, and you’re working in the area of environmental law, for example, you have to process a lot of scientific information to do your work. And who’s to say if that—if a female lawyer, um, in environmental law saves some precious land in Alaska—that isn’t more of a contribution than an article in chemistry. I think we’re looking at the world of work too categorically, and we’re looking at equity issues too simplistically. And I think we have to look at individuals and make sure that they have opportunities to develop their talents to their potential--to their level of ambition and—and have appropriate opportunities. And I don’t think equal opportunities necessarily results in equal outcomes always.
When you’re passionate about a population, and we do have a tendency in the field of gifted to—to view gifted as a special population—And when you do that, you have to define it succinctly. You lose a lot of individuality with that. And I think one of the things that our study does is it underscores the breadth of psychological diversity in these kids. I mean, it’s just really huge. A very common criterion for classifying someone as intellectually gifted is the top one 1%. Well, the top 1% occurs around IQ of 137, but we know that IQs go well beyond 200. And that’s just one dimension. There’s also quantitative dimensions and spatial dimensions and verbal dimensions of intellectual precocity. And those dimensions pull with them, when you select at the extremes, a lot of interests and personalities that are very, very different. Just imagine an individual—a gifted individual—two gifted individuals with the same intellectual profile, the same interest pattern, but one’s a flaming extrovert and one’s an introvert. You’re going to work with those two students differently. They’re going to have different preferences, different needs all through life. And you’re going to cater their environments accordingly. And advise them accordingly. And I think that’s one of the things we do with our study. We have a model for conceptualizing the breadth of individuality within this special population. All special populations have a lot of individuality.
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