Genius 101
Dean Keith Simonton : Genius 101: Who First Studied Genius?

An Excerpt from Genius 101

Who First Studied Genius?

By Dean Keith Simonton | Updated 2/22/15

GPyramideniuses have been around for a very long time. In fact, perhaps the oldest identifiable genius is the Egyptian Imhotep, the architect who built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara sometime before 2600 B.C.E. Within a few generations, his architectural design evolved into the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives to the present day. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine the history of world civilization without the contributions of specific geniuses. Within the confines of the West, for example, just think of Greece without Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Italy without Dante and Michelangelo, Spain without Cervantes and Goya, France without Descartes and Napoleon, Germany without Goethe and Beethoven, the Netherlands without Rembrandt and Vermeer, England without Shakespeare and Newton, the United States without Jefferson and Whitman, and Russia without Tolstoy and Lenin. Each culture would suffer a major loss, not just in prestige or influence but in recognizable identity besides. An English literature without Shakespeare's plays and poems would be like a London without the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, or Big Ben.

Rather than conceive of the impact of geniuses in terms of national heritage, we can contemplate their significance with respect to particular domains of human achievement. Where would philosophy be without Plato, mathematics without Euclid, astronomy without Copernicus, physics without Einstein, chemistry without Lavoisier, biology without Darwin, medicine without Pasteur, art without Picasso, technology without Edison, or film without Bergman? Rather different, no?

Given the prominence of geniuses throughout the world's history, it should not surprise us that they have often become the subjects of biographers. Examples include Diogenes Laertius's The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, written in the early 200s C.E., and Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, published in about 1550. These biographies obviously focus on creative geniuses. Yet other biographers have concentrated on exemplars of genius in other domains, such as politics and war. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, written around 100 C.E., is a case in point. And almost two centuries earlier there appeared the biographies included in Sima Qian's (Ssu˘ma Ch'ien) Records of the Grand Historian, the classic history of early Chinese civilization.

These biographical contributions are all substantial. They often provide the only information we have about the geniuses they describe. But these biographies are humanistic — literary and historical — rather than scientific. They certainly are not examples of psychological science. Genuine scientific inquiries into the psychology of genius came much later. Indeed, such investigations did not appear until the 19th century. The investigators engaged in these inquiries adopted two main approaches: psychometrics and historiometrics (Simonton, 1999c).


Probably everyone who is reading this [article] has taken a psychological test — and most likely many such tests. Maybe you took a vocational interest test in junior high or a scholastic achievement test in high school. Perhaps you have visited Web sites that allow you to understand what makes you tick by assessing your personality or motives. You may even have taken an IQ test on the Internet or in the office of some school psychologist. Although these quantitative instruments vary greatly in what they measure and how they measure it, they have certain features in common. They consist of a series of questions focusing on one or more psychological variables. These variables may involve abilities, aptitudes, interests, values, dispositions, well, you name it. In some tests, the questions may follow a true/false format, others are multiple choice, and still others provide ratings along some scale, like a 7-point Likert scale that goes from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Psychometrics is the subdiscipline of psychology devoted to the creation and application of such tests (Rudy, 2007). The word literally means "mind measurement."

The British scientist Francis Galton was a pioneer in this field. For instance, he devised various tests that assessed how people vary in reaction times, visual and auditory acuity, and color perception as well as height, weight, arm span, and strength. These anthropometric (or human measurement) assessments were thought to gauge important individual differences in abilities (Galton, 1883). Galton also invented the questionnaire and quickly applied the new method to the study of eminent scientists and artists. For example, one questionnaire asked great scientists — including Galton's cousin Charles Darwin — about their attitudes toward school and education (Galton, 1874).

Not only was Galton the first psychometrician to study genius, but he himself was a genius. Most psychologists today have to struggle to recruit research participants. Either they have to pay participants in hard cash or else they have to offer them extra credit in an introductory psychology course. Probably many of my readers have served as subjects in laboratory experiments in this way — as I did when I became a psychology major. In contrast, Galton was able to convince participants to pay him for subjecting them to anthropometric instruments. At the 1884–1885 International Health Exhibition, 9,337 visitors paid him 3 pence each for the privilege!

Unfortunately, Galton's early psychometric measures were either inaccurate or irrelevant. In the former category was his assessment of mental imagery. The potential utility of the measure was undermined by its highly qualitative rather than quantitative nature. In the latter category was his measure of the highest pitch that a person can hear. Although this trait can be assessed with much more accuracy than mental imagery, it is, unlike mental imagery, not pertinent to anything particularly interesting — and certainly not to anything germane to genius.

Hence, psychometric research did not make much headway until instruments emerged that provided fairly accurate assessments of highly relevant variables. In this area the real pioneer was Lewis M. Terman, a professor at Stanford University. Terman's starting point was an early version of an intelligence measure developed in France by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon (1905).

In 1916, Terman revised and extended this test to produce the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. A few years later he began a longterm study of 1,528 children who received very high IQ scores (mostly 140 and above) on the Stanford-Binet test. The results of this longitudinal inquiry were published in a series of volumes, the first appearing in 1925. The title of this series was Genetic Studies of Genius (Terman, 1925–1959). Terman studied his young geniuses from every possible aspect, including their family background, scholastic performance, physical health, personality traits, interests and values, and later their achievements in adulthood.

Although Terman conducted the first classic psychometric study of genius, he was by no means the only psychologist to employ this specific approach. Perhaps most notable among other contributors was Leta Hollingworth. She began her career making significant contributions to the psychology of women, but her interests eventually turned to young budding geniuses. In 1922, she began a 3-year study of 50 children with IQs that surpassed 155, publishing her findings in the 1926 work, Gifted Children. In 1916, she had actually begun investigating children with even higher IQs, starting with a child with an IQ of 187! Her conclusions, based on a dozen extremely bright kids, were published posthumously in a book entitled Children Above IQ 180 (1942). Hollingworth's two works have become minor classics in the field. In any case, by the middle of the 20th century, psychometric studies of genius had become well established. •

© 2009 Dean Keith Simonton. Reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company

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