Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 33: Genius and Talent

Emory S. Bogardus

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THE quality of intersocial stimulation depends partly on genius and talent. These human traits are scientifically known as special aptitudes ; and popularly, as "natural bents." A person with a special aptitude is sometimes referred to as a mathematics "shark" or a mechanics "wizard."


The special aptitudes are inborn tendencies possessed by some persons but not by others. Their origin is unknown, although their preservation is undoubtedly influenced by selection. Their presence is usually manifested in the early years of life between the ages of five and ten. They usually make their appearance without special stimulation, but their development depends upon the nature of the social environment and its types of interaction. Where interaction is on a low intelligence level, special aptitudes may never be recognized as such, being "born to blush unseen."

Without the stimuli that come from an environment of intelligence and of active culture the special aptitudes scarcely rise above potential levels. Galton's theory that genius will express itself irrespective of environment and social interaction is rash.[1] It is by no means clear that a "genius," even though he maintains his health, is bound to rise to eminence. Such a theory, which fails to appreciate the significance of social stimulation was challenged first by Ward,[2] and has since fallen into wide disrepute. It may be assumed that the quality and amount of social stimuli are influential in developing the special aptitudes constituting genius and talent.

Special aptitudes may exist but the social environment may provide few or no opportunities for their expression, and hence they wither away before their development is scarcely begun. Where poverty rules there is little chance for their expression. Economic circumstances may easily limit mental interaction, and in consequence, the special aptitudes fail of proper

( 383) stimulation. Parents may recognize that a child is talented but be unable to give him training advantages, that is, the proper stimuli.


The appearance of a special aptitude in certain children, but not in others, remains a mystery. The biologist, our authority in these matters, is still puzzled. The appearance of "talents" is unaccounted for biologically. The laws of heredity are undoubtedly operative, but their intricacies are as yet unfathomed. Mental abilities are clearly inherited ; mental defectiveness responds to the laws of heredity ; and superior mental ability likewise is governed, but is as likely to follow the laws of mutation as of ordinary variation. Special ability is as apt, or almost as apt, to appear in a child who is born in a tenement as in one who is born in a mansion. Herein is found the democracy of special aptitudes.

Mentally superior people may have mentally superior children, but this is partly accounted for, particularly by the fact that such children have had the advantage of superior parental stimulation and an active culture.[3] The eugenist recognizes indirectly, however, that mental stimulation plays an important rôle in the rise of genius. "Great men, it is true, seem to rise higher than their source."[4] He is right, of course, in saying that you cannot make "good ability out of inborn dullness by all the aids which environment and education or anything else can possibly offer."

Special ability appears in illiterate as well as in educated homes. Where there are economic and social disadvantages it requires encouragement from society in order that it may be conserved and directed into socially useful channels. Special ability that appears among the children of the very wealthy also requires attention from society, for it may be wasted in riotous living. Economic affluence may fail to stimulate special ability to its best achievements, and the loss to society be as great as when poverty smothers genius. The mutant theory of the appearance of genius requires that society provide democratically for stimulation of special aptitudes in all who may possess them.

In recent years intelligence tests have demonstrated variations in the inheritance and development of intelligence. They claim to measure "native intelligence." They seem to measure "native capacity plus environmental contributions."[5] Be this as it may, however, they show definitely

(384) that the "intelligence" of different individuals varies greatly. Their champions have consequently emphasized unduly the differences in mental abilities, and thereby have been guilty of three errors. In the first place they have sometimes persuaded themselves that intelligence ratings are inclusive of all phases of intelligence and not simply of those that can be measured. In the second place they have considered intelligence as somewhat inclusive of all mental abilities, not to say, all psychical abilities. In the third place the differences in achievement which they have found have led them into a theory of an aristocracy of ability. They are scientific in purpose, but have sheltered serious fallacies.

Tests of emotion, of accomplishment, of "will," and so forth need to be perfected and their results pooled with those of intelligence tests before a true personality rating can even be approximated. Even then there may be some phases of personality that will not respond to mathematical measurement, and these phases may be even more significant than those that lend themselves to statistical treatment. Much may be hoped for, however, in the development of inclusive personality tests, and these apparently while giving credit to inherited traits may reveal the results of social interaction to be of startling proportions.


The democracy of talent includes (1) the fact that special ability appears indiscriminately among people of all social classes. This seems to demonstrate the common human nature of all people. (2) While talent of one type appears in certain people, a different type appears in other people, and so on; hence, it seems fair to assume that natural "gifts" are not as one-sided in their inheritance as a snap judgment might indicate. (3) The development of talent involves social stimulation. Its full expression, even of an "individualistic" talent such as musical ability, depends upon mental interaction and the stimuli which come from a civilized culture. Talent is socially dependent. (4) Since talent is inherited and is also dependent for its development on social interaction, its possessor is only a steward, and its use and enjoyment therefore bears democratic obligations.

(5) The appearance of genius is not confined to one sex. Historically woman did not have opportunity to translate her latent talent into achievement, and much ability undoubtedly remained dormant. In recent decades, however, in our country particularly, woman has been released from the trammels of a household drudge or a pet in a doll's house ; she has been

( 385) encouraged to rely on her own resources and to initiate and lead. In consequence, she has been forging ahead rapidly and availing herself of increasing opportunities. Competing with men in nearly all lines of human endeavor she is demonstrating her versatile abilities. In the public schools today girls remain long after boys become restless and leave. More women are availing themselves of a liberal education than men. Since a liberal education is basic to public leadership, women may attain the controlling positions in forming public opinion and hence of determining the trend of social progress. At any rate, when all the processes of mental interaction are open to them on equal terms with men, women bid fair to display as much special ability as do men. Their talents may run in part along unique lines but at least they do not seem to be slighted by Nature as it was once conventional to think.


To Lombroso genius is a form of insanity.[6] Genius represents such a large concentration of mental ability along a particular line of behavior that its development tends to create a one-sided, unbalanced mentality. The genius is often a crank and as such resembles insane persons with their "hobbies" and tendencies to concentrate on single ideas.

Lombroso's theory is only partially true, namely, when genius through prolonged concentration or through adverse circumstances breaks down under the strain. At such times the transition from genius to insanity has perhaps been made. There are instances where one mental condition shades into the other, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. The normal genius functions differently from the normal insane person; he is far remote in behavior and achievement from the violently insane.

The genius, in social interaction, is often a misfit. His ideas may be so far out of harmony with currently conceived views that he is dubbed "crazy." It is not the real genius who is crazy, but rather the people, perhaps, who call him so. There are many would-be geniuses, or "crazy" people who mistake themselves for geniuses. The genius at his best, however, finds difficulty in functioning normally in interaction processes. He grows impatient and fumes against errors and the slowness of current reformations; he may even withdraw from social interaction, and become a recluse. The genius may easily fall into attitudes that are "insane," as judged by prevalent standards. It is only by biding his time that he attains a reputation of mental sobriety, but this waiting on progress is almost impossible to such a specialist as the genius.



Odin,[7] a French writer of the nineteenth century, Lester F. Ward,[8] a founder of American sociology, and more recently G. R. Davies [9] have discussed with increasing scientific accuracy the decisive factors in transforming inherited talent and special ability into actual achievement. The emphasis is put on the influence of environmental stimuli; that is, upon social interaction. Where there are certain inherited traits, development will not take place automatically, but waits on social stimulation or may actually be prevented by social repression. The keynote to achievement, even of the special kinds that genius produces, is found in social stimulation and social repression.

An important corollary of this theory is at once apparent. If society is unenlightened it will unwittingly crush, or at least fail to stimulate properly the genius and talents of its more gifted members. Since it is difficult to find even today any society which gives scientific consideration to searching out genius and talent, especially among the less fortunate social classes, and properly encouraging it, it is clear that the waste of genius must be incalculable. In the lowest economic strata of society very little is done in most countries, and nothing in some countries, to conserve and train the special abilities of the children of the poor. If eighty or ninety per cent of the time and energy of the human population have been and are confined to earning bread and butter, how much superior ability must thus be kept from expression. Even a man who demonstrated the possession of a master mind declares : "No, it is true I have accomplished a certain amount, but who knows what I might have done if my mind had not had to put forth so much effort and time on the daily necessities of life?'[10]

In the higher economic strata special ability is also wasted. In these situations there is not repression but rather lack of stimulation. Genius does not rise to its heights ordinarily without persistent effort, but the possession of much wealth is not conducive to prolonged exertion and hence soothes even genius to mediocrity. In the homes of wealth the young may form habits of indulgence, from which they rarely escape and which drug talent and genius.

Another phase of the Odin-Ward theory is that lack of public apprecia-

( 387) -tion is often fatal to the development of genius. As we examine the newspapers today and the news values by which the reading public governs them we observe how scandal, vice, and crime are rated high and given the big headlines while achievement, scholastic effort, or special ability without official position behind it usually receives totally inadequate recognition. If the public mind is that of the fourteen year old adolescent it is easily perceived why special ability is dubbed "highbrow" or else is ignored and neglected. The large prizes today go to those who are trained to manipulate their fellows, who work in the field of "profits," while inventors of social and spiritual worth often eke out a miserable existence and die in poverty. The public is composed of so many individualistic persons absorbed in seeking pecuniary gain that it cannot give attention to or fully appreciate the person of genius who is willing to devote his abilities to public service.

Moreover, there is educational discrimination in favor of the well-to-do and the wealthy; the "foreigners" beyond the "railroad tracks" receive proportionately much less than their share of the public expenditures for education. The Negro likewise is slighted. The children of the wealthy command special tutors and have the advantages of travel and cultured parents, while the children of the poor cannot even dream of many of these stimulating advantages. Special ability thus is allowed to slumber in half or two-thirds of a whole population.


The decisive factors in transforming inherited talent and special ability into achievement have been well analyzed by Odin, Ward, and Davies. A study of the various facts shows four fundamental conditions.

1. A social environment which is mentally stimulating. Genius rarely matures under a widespread pall of mental stagnation. There must be mental contacts which strike fire and some general appreciation of the achievements that a genius can effect.

2. Thorough training. There are only a few successful persons today who have not spent time and energy in developing and perfecting techniques. It is becoming increasingly true that special ability must have a commensurate scholastic and practical training as a basis for complete self-expression. It is fair to assume that the greater the potential ability the greater will be the value of both extensive and intensive training. Nearly all accredited geniuses, whether of the Paderewski or the Edison type, report that many hours daily are spent in "practice" and hence in training.

( 388) In order that all the special abilities of a person may be fully developed, his education must begin early, proceed as systematically as possible, and be continued throughout life. The greater the genius the more imperative is a thorough training.

3. Freedom from the struggle for bread. If energy is continually expended in securing the necessities of life, genius is to that extent hampered. Sufficient means for travel and research is another essential.

4. Social respect as a medium for the development of self respect. Persons with special talent are often a thermometer of the social reflections of themselves. A genius is handicapped if he grows up as a member of a race that is despised by a dominant race, in a community where luxury spreads an enervating virus, or where vice in any form destroys the energies of life.


Intelligence testing reveals many gradations of mental ability; when the intelligence quotient exceeds 1.20, superior mental ability exists. Then, there are other evidences of talent, such as musical ability, and executive ability, which intelligence tests do not reach. In these cases it is inherited capacity in given directions to which reference presumably is made. The "born genius" is the type most commonly talked about. In these instances a high degree of focalization of psychic energy has been effected by nature,[11] and the individual is thereby enabled under normal stimuli to achieve marvelous results along the line of his "genius."[12]

A second and more common type of genius is "genius by hard work." The first type is a genius chiefly by inheritance ; the second, primarily by personal initiative. The born genius has had the nature and type of the focalization of his psychic energy determined for him; for example, in the line of artistic or mathematical ability. The genius by hard work chooses for himself, with the aid of others, the direction in which he shall focalize his energies. The persistent concentration of the attention of an ordinary person in one line of mental endeavor will give that person, barring accidents, the rank of a leader in that sphere. The genius by hard work has special advantages over the born genius. The former has the opportunity to select, within limits, the field in which his energies are to be concentrated ; that is, the field in which he may develop special ability and

( 389) become a "genius," whereas the latter must accept whatever field nature endowed him for. Again, the genius by deliberate concentration is in a better position to appreciate the value of his abilities than is the born genius, for he has paid a heavy price for achievement and knows its worth. The born genius, on the other hand, is apt to take his gift for granted, and even waste it in commonplace living.

Geniuses by virtue of deliberate focalization are far more numerous than born geniuses. They are, as a rule, better balanced, more practical, but less brilliant and spectacular. They are the product of personal choice and social interaction. The rôle of social stimuli is probably great. If nature has not focalized one's psychic energy for him, and made him a potential genius, he may focalize his energy himself and become a "genius," providing there be sufficient social stimulation. As no born genius would have his special abilities developed without the aid of social stimuli, so the genius by hard work is doubly so indebted.

Then, there is a form of pseudo-genius ; that is, of persons who are credited with being geniuses, but who in reality have been accidentally favored with social circumstances. With mediocre ability they have happened to be walking across the stage of life at the place where the spotlight has flashed, and they have been credited with being great. Others have inherited wealth and enough of common sense to enable them to remain in positions of vast power, with the real organization work that supports them being done by competent and well-paid underlings.


It is often remarked that the sons of great geniuses rarely attain the parental level of achievement. There is much evidence to support this contention. The chief explanation is to be found perhaps in the law of regression. The biologist has found that ordinarily offspring tend to inherit qualities nearer the average of the species than do their parents. This tendency offsets in a way the laws of variation and gives a central core of inheritance. The parent may be widely variant in some inherited trait, but by the law of regression his offspring, as far as the inheritance of his trait is concerned, will revert toward the standard.

The social interaction factors in the failure of children of distinguished parents are also significant. By indulgences parents prevent capable children from being stimulated into achievement. In wishing their children to have "an easier time"than they had in the early years of life, they unwittingly swing to the opposite extreme and do not allow their children

( 390) to experience situations where the latter must struggle for themselves. Life conditions are made "soft," appropriate stimuli to do difficult things are withheld—hence the children of eminent parents rarely rise to high levels. Again, because too much is often expected of such children, they react unfavorably, and may even swing to antisocial extremes. Sometimes, eminent parents are in the social limelight so much that the children revolt against "having no more privacy than a gold fish in a bowl;" they deliberately seek the quiet life, the life away from the glamor.


In connection with genius and special abilities vocational guidance has functions of the greatest importance. It has not yet developed methods of detecting geniuses and persons who may become geniuses by hard work. The technique of mental testing is as yet inadequate, and hence vocational guidance cannot be dogmatic or arbitrary.

Special ability may not mature until a person reaches thirty-five or forty years of age. Since persons display new abilities even in middle life and surprise their close friends by unanticipated achievement, vocational guidance is under obligation to go slow in pronouncing final judgment on the life work for a fourteen-year old boy or girl.

The supernormal is only recently receiving special attention educationally. Such attention does not necessarily mean that the precocious youth will be encouraged in his precociousness, but rather he will be given a well-balanced physical and mental development in addition to careful training of his special ability. Instead of skipping grades in school he is kept in his regular grade but given more and a greater variety of work to do. Each grade is made rich for him according to his ability. Instead of being hurried perpendicularly through the grades, he takes each in order but uses his greater ability to work out horizontally farther in each grade than his fellows do.

An important function of vocational guidance, as soon as special abilities have been noted, is to encourage the possessors of talent to enter lines of activity, not primarily where they can earn the most money, but where they can best express their whole personalities ; that is, in occupations and professions where constructive social welfare principles may be furthered, and where mental interaction is being socialized.


Genius is unsocial ; that is, it may be spent in either social or anti-social directions, according to the prevailing stimuli in the social situations

( 391)

in which its possessor is reared and finds his life work. It is as easily turned into exploitation as into service. Primary groups are of special importance, for they determine the basis of development of genius. Society bears a degree of responsibility, for it may carelessly allow its geniuses to destroy the very foundations of civilization. Genius is in especial danger of being "bought up" by evil, designing men and by "interests."

Genius easily reacts against traditions, conventions, and customs. Being "different" it revolts against standardization, red tape, and formalism. By being "different," genius may be "far ahead of the times," and thus be deluded into the belief that even the best values of the present are antiquated. The genius tends to become an iconoclast, a critic, a revolutionist. Consequently, society has difficulty in distinguishing between its geniuses and its criminals. The fearless critic is mistaken for the antisocially inclined. Both the genius and the criminal may be destructive of current values but from different attitudes. Society tends to label its geniuses as "undesirables ;" it may even imprison or crucify them ; and then, decades or centuries after they have "perished ignominiously" honor them and hallow their memories, i.e., Socrates, John Hus, Columbus, Galileo, Joan of Arc.

In the public schools it is genius which is often recalcitrant, because of impatience with an iron-clad standardization. Youthful genius resents rules; it loves primeval freedom; that is, freedom without restraint, and easily chafes at ordinary school discipline. It rarely has a balanced sense of social values. Being an extremist in biological type, or at least in achievement type, it is out of tune with the normal and has often expressed a one-sided attitude toward social values. Genius is apt to be either an arch-critic of social values or else an arch-exponent of certain innovations among social values which it advocates with vigor but not always with scientific validity.

A new recognition is needed of genius that is expended in the furtherance of social values rather than being devoted to aggrandizement. This recognition may take on eugenic aspects, which, however, are not related so much to distinguishing between "superior races" and "inferior races" but to distinguishing between the superior and inferior members of every race. Each race apparently has both superior and inferior members. The Slavic race in Europe today is undoubtedly "superior" to the Nordic race five thousand years ago. Social stimulation and encouragement are needed for all the individuals irrespective of race.

Special ability and intersocial stimulation are correlates. The first is matured by the latter, and the latter in turn seems to create the former

( 392) indirectly ; that is, it creates special achievement and leadership opportunities. The greatest development of special ability occurs where social interaction is most active and free.


1. The quality of intersocial stimulation depends upon the nature of the genius and talent that is involved.

2. Genius refers to inherited special aptitudes, which for their development are dependent on mental interaction.

3. Intelligence tests which measure inherited mental ability plus the effect of social stimuli are not a safe criterion of the presence of potential genius of the hard work variety.

4. Special ability appears with equal frequency in children of poor and wealthy families.

5. Genius, because of its concentrated nature, easily makes its possessor unbalanced, and hence its resemblance on occasion to insanity.

6. In the born genius nature has focalized the individual's psychic energy, but in the genius by hard work the individual plays a part in focalizing his psychic energy himself along lines that he may choose.

7. Society is careless of genius, allowing much of it to be wasted.

8. A born genius, as distinguished from a genius by hard work, is often careless with the abilities nature has generously given him.

9. Genius easily "sells out" to aggrandizement, and hence works to the detriment of society; its socialization is an unusually vital concern to society.

10. Vocational guidance, which cannot detect all special ability inasmuch as it may not be expressed until the mature years of life, has the responsibility of directing it along socially constructive channels.

11. Special abilities and mental interaction are indispensable each to the other.


1. What is genius?

2. What is Galton's theory of genius?

3. How far do intelligence tests reveal genius?

4. In what sense is genius democratic?

5. What is the relation of special aptitudes to genius?

6. Can the inheritance of special aptitudes be forecasted?

7. What is Lombroso's theory of genius?

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8. Why is a genius often a social misfit?

9. What is the Odin-Ward theory of genius?

10. How is society wasteful of its geniuses?

11. What advantages does the genius by hard work have that the born genius does not possess?

12. Why must vocational guidance be especially careful in dealing with problems of genius?


1. How far does mental interaction function in the development of genius?

2. Why is it difficult to predict the appearance of special abilities?

3. To what error is eugenics subject in treating the question of superior ability?

4. In what sense is it incorrect to refer to "superior races"and "inferior races?"

5. What serious error does intelligence testing lead to regarding the inheritance of mental ability?

6. What may the genius do in order to protect himself from becoming insane?

7. From becoming a social recalcitrant?

8. Why must genius be trained in order to attain its highest levels?

9. In what sense may everyone not mentally defective become a genius?

10. What are the two main variables in predicting the maturation of special ability?


Davies, G. R., Social Environment (McClurg, 1917), Ch. IV.

Galton, Frances, Hereditary Genius (Macmillan, 1892).

Joly, Henri, Psychologie des grands hommes (Paris, 1890.

Knowlson, T. S., Originality (Lippincott, 1918).

Lombroso, C., The Man of Genius (London, 1891).

Odin, Alfred, Genèse des grands hommes (Paris, 1895), Tome I. Terman, L. M., "A New Approach to the Study of Genius," Psychological Review, July 1922, pp. 310-18.

Thorndike, E. L., The Original Nature of Man (Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1913).

Ward, L. F., Applied Sociology (Ginn, 1906), Ch. X.


  1. Galton, Hereditary Genius (Macmillan, 1892), p. 34.
  2. Applied Sociology (Ginn, 1906), pp. 115 ff. 382
  3. Cf. S. J. Holmes, The Trend of the Race (Harcourt, Brace: 1921), p. 116.
  4. Ibid., p. 115.
  5. C. M. Case, Non-Violent Coercion (Century, 1922), p. 8.
  6. The Man of Genius (London, 1891).
  7. Genèse des grands hommes (Paris, 1895).
  8. Applied Sociology (Ginn, 1916), Part II.
  9. Social Environment (McClurg, 1917), Ch. IV.
  10. Emily P. Cape, Lester F. Ward, A Personal Sketch (Putnam, 1922), p. 50.
  11. Lester F. Ward, Pure Sociology (Macmillan, 1914), p. 36.
  12. Where nature has concentrated an unusual degree of special ability in one person the result is what is popularly known as a "prodigy."

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