I. Introduction to the study of exceptional performance

A. The purpose and goals of this website.

The objective of this website differs from that of a conventional book or a university lecture class. It is, rather, more closely aligned with a seminar for upper level undergraduates or beginning graduate students. Most notably, all of the information that constitutes the core of the website is not provided for you, as it would be in a book or in a series of lectures. Instead, in order to extract much of value from this website, you will need to do the outside reading of recommended books and articles. With these readings as background, the website will offer a series of questions, critiques, analyses, and proposals. It is the hope of your author that these questions and such will go beyond the recommended readings and provide unique material not available elsewhere, in the same way that a seminar can provide a learning experience not readily available from reading a book on one’s own or passively attending a large lecture. Obviously, the “give and take” of a lively university seminar is not a part of this website, although many of the questions and analyses offered here were a part of actual seminar interactions at the University of Toronto, where this course was offered until recently. (I retired.) Nevertheless, unlike a textbook, this website can (and I expect will) be augmented and revised often so that it remains current and addresses the interests and concerns of its readers.

This initial version of the website will contain several sections. First, some introductory remarks will be offered in order to clarify terminology and explain the fundamental concepts underlying the psychology of exceptional performance. Then, classic readings in the three major content areas – creative genius, expertise, and talent – will be examined and critiqued. Finally, additional readings will be recommended and the future directions of the website will be outlined. We hope you enjoy it.

B. The focus on individual differences.

The title of this essay – the psychology of exceptional performance – is intended to emphasize that our focus is on individual differences in behaviour. The study of individual differences, i.e., how people differ from one another, has historically taken a back seat to the “experimental” approach to understanding behaviour, with its search for general principles or laws. So, for example, psychologists have traditionally been more concerned with how the average person learns a new task or acquires new information rather than how one person differs from another in this new learning. If one is concerned primarily with how the average person behaves, the behaviour of exceptional individuals takes a back seat. However, in this essay the behaviour of the exceptional individual is of primary concern.

This focus on the exceptional leads us to the inevitable question: What constitutes “exceptional”? There are, as we will see, many ways to approach this question. For now, we will use a rather simple (and uninteresting) statistical definition of exceptional – greater than +/- 2 standard deviations from the mean (or, roughly, the top and bottom1 2.5% of the population). Other, somewhat less bloodless, definitions of exceptionality will be explored as we progress, but for now the statistical definition will at least convey the scope of our concerns.

One further definitional point needs to be made. We refer to “performance” because it is a relatively neutral, behaviourally anchored term, in contrast to other possible terms such as “ability” or “potential”. These latter terms are sometimes used in conjunction with particular types of theories about the nature and origins of exceptionality with which we may not completely agree. So for now we will speak of exceptional performance to mean simply the behaviour of those at the high end of the “bell curve” without making any assumptions (insofar as this is possible) about the nature of this behaviour or its origins (such as genetic, or cultural, or random, etc.).

The subtitle of this website – creative genius, expertise, and talent – speaks to the wide range of terms that have been used synonymously with exceptional performance. Over the course of this examination, we will encounter these and related terms (gifted, high ability, innovative, and so on). Ultimately, our goal is to understand these concepts as scientists do – with an appeal to evidence.

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