Gifted and arrogant: What does "Sherlock" reveal about giftedness?

4 years ago
The BBC hit series, “Sherlock,” portrays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (and his sidekick Watson, who, of course, blogs) in a witty, engaging portrayal of the master detective. What stands out, though, is a depiction of a highly gifted individual who behaves arrogantly, says whatever he thinks, and falls short in relationships. Highly gifted intellect and asynchronous development that entertains. But should we be laughing?
While engaging, and not as blatantly stereotypical, say, as Sheldon, the gifted, socially awkward scientist on “The Big Bang Theory,” Sherlock reinforces the assumption that highly gifted people are impossible to fathom, socially aberrant, and hold contempt toward those less brilliant, entertaining or talented. When Sherlock refuses to engage with people because they bore him, or chastises others for their stupidity, he conveys the arrogance often attributed to the gifted.
Yet, are highly gifted people really arrogant?
A study at the University of Nebraska conducted by Paul Silvia and colleagues identified a correlation between individuals self-identified as highly creative and a lower score representing honesty and humility on a measure of personality traits. However, the researchers noted limitations in the study, as subjects were young college students, and measures of creativity were only based on self-report. Also it is not known whether subjects in this study were actually gifted, or just inclined toward creative pursuits.
On the other hand, some famous gifted individuals have displayed signs of arrogance. Psychiatrist Neel Burton compiled a list of appalling, cringeworthy comments made by creative individuals throughout history. While a blatantly self-inflated sense of self is not common, when someone possesses extraordinary talents, whether intellectual, artistic, or athletic, the individual may lose perspective. 
And gifted individuals may have the same difficulty as anyone else with perspective-taking, or recognizing that others don’t see the world as they do. Their impatience and frustration can quickly progress to a lack of compassion for others who are less capable. While young children may vocalize their irritation without censor, adults may be more circumspect, yet still convey disapproval or boredom through nonverbal communication. Condescension and disdain typically arise from surprise or even disappointment when others can’t keep up with their thinking.  What do you mean you can’t figure that out? How can you not see the point of that book? You really didn’t get that joke?

So, what differentiates arrogance from honest self-reflection in the highly gifted?

Arrogance is the same for gifted individuals as it is for anyone else: it is evident when someone assumes he or she is intrinsically better than others. Arrogance is displayed through self-absorption, entitlement, an air of superiority, and a lack of empathy or caring for others’ opinions or feelings. Whether the result of excessive unwarranted praise, underlying insecurity, or lack of perspective, arrogance can reflect a distorted view of oneself, a level of detachment from others, and at times, more serious emotional disturbance. However, arrogance should not be assumed just because a careful and sober assessment of facts finds that intellect, skills or accomplishments are exceptional. 

In fact, while some gifted children and adults may bask in the glow of their abilities, most are actually too self-aware to indulge in this for long. Once they develop the maturity and insight to appreciate the nature of their abilities, gifted individuals typically recognize that with these talents come the burden of expectations, the need for rigor and hard work, and the social and emotional components of giftedness that make life more complicated. Most gifted individuals expect a lot from themselves; they know when they are underperforming and can be highly critical of a finished product, scrutinizing every detail or flaw. Many hide their talents by downplaying their abilities, "dumbing themselves down" as teens, or becoming chronic underachievers.

Gifted children, teens and adults may be wrongly perceived as arrogant when they accurately and matter-of-factly state the obvious; they excel at certain things. They possess exceptional intellectual and/or artistic/musical abilities, and when they calmly mention their strengths, express competitive desires, or are pleased with their accomplishments, they may be accused of being arrogant. While humility and modesty are admirable traits, there also must be a time and place for simple acknowledgement of one's strengths. Gifted individuals may be under particular scrutiny when they communicate their abilities or frustrations. Others may become angry or intimidated when a gifted child questions her teacher's accuracy, when a gifted teen makes no attempt to hide his boredom in class, or when a gifted adult acknowledges success.

Gifted children benefit from the same parental and social support as other children with respect to perspective-taking, empathy, and values. They can learn how to express their initiative, passion, impatience, frustration, and excitement over achievements using kindness and tact. They can be reminded that their exceptional abilities are an accident of birth, and make them no more special than others. They can be guided to respect and appreciate another person's perspective, even if they do not agree.

What are your opinions about arrogance and giftedness?

Silvia, P, Kaufman, J., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Weigert, B. (2011). Cantakerous creativity: Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and the HEXACO structure of creative achievement.Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 687-689.
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