1. Edited by
Dean Keith Simonton
THE WILEY HANDBOOK OF
2. The Wiley Handbook
3. The Wiley Handbook
Dean Keith Simonton
4. This edition first published 2014
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Wiley handbook of genius / edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-118-36740-7 (cloth)
1. Genius. 2. Genius–Handbooks, manuals, etc. I. Simonton, Dean Keith. II. Title: Handbook of
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Cover image: Top row, l-r: Einstein (©AF archive / Alamy ); Marie Curie (© Album / Superstock);
Mozart (©FineArt / Alamy ). Bottom row, l-r: Frida Kahlo ( Lucas Vallecillos / age fotostock /
SuperStock); Bobby Fischer (©INTERFOTO / Alamy ); Jimi Hendrix (©AF archive / Alamy ).
Set in 10/12pt Galliard by Aptara Inc., New Delhi, India
List of Contributors ix
Part I Perspectives 1
1 The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 3
Laura C. Ball
2 The Psychobiography of Genius 20
William Todd Schultz
3 Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 33
Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
4 Psychometric Studies of Scientific Talent and Eminence 62
Gregory J. Feist
5 Historiometric Studies of Genius 87
Dean Keith Simonton
Part II Processes 107
6 The Neuroscience of Creative Genius 109
Nancy C. Andreasen and Kanchna Ramchandran
7 Artistic Genius and Creative Cognition 120
8 Case Studies of Genius: Ordinary Thinking, Extraordinary Outcomes 139
Robert W. Weisberg
9 Virtual Genius 166
6. vi Contents
Part III Attributes 183
10 Varieties of Genius 185
Robert J. Sternberg and Stacey L. Bridges
11 Cognitive Disinhibition, Creativity, and Psychopathology 198
Shelley H. Carson
12 Openness to Experience 222
Robert R. McCrae and David M. Greenberg
13 Political and Military Geniuses: Psychological Profiles and Responses
to Stress 244
Part IV Origins 267
14 Genetics of Intellectual and Personality Traits Associated with Creative
Genius: Could Geniuses Be Cosmobian Dragon Kings? 269
Wendy Johnson and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr.
15 Child Prodigies and Adult Genius: A Weak Link 297
16 Creative Genius: A View from the Expert-Performance Approach 321
K. Anders Ericsson
17 Cognitive Processes and Development of Chess Genius: An
Integrative Approach 350
Guillermo Campitelli, Fernand Gobet, and Merim Bilali´c
18 Diversifying Experiences in the Development of Genius and their Impact
on Creative Cognition 375
Rodica Ioana Damian and Dean Keith Simonton
Part V Trajectories 395
19 The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Maturity: Insights
into Elements of Genius 397
Harrison J. Kell and David Lubinski
20 Age and Scientific Genius 422
Benjamin F. Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce A. Weinberg
21 Musical Creativity over the Lifespan 451
22 Literary Geniuses: Their Life, Work, and Death 473
Alexander S. McKay and James C. Kaufman
23 Lifetime Biopsychosocial Trajectories of the Terman Gifted Children:
Health, Well-Being, and Longevity 488
Katherine A. Duggan and Howard S. Friedman
7. Contents vii
Part VI Contexts 509
24 Evaluating Excellence in the Arts 511
Victor Ginsburgh and Sheila Weyers
25 The Systems Model of Creativity and Its Applications 533
26 Openness to Scientific Innovation 546
Frank J. Sulloway
27 Prominent Modern Artists: Determinants of Creativity 564
28 Genius in World Civilization 586
Part VII Prospects 609
29 Does Genius Science Have a Future History? 611
Dean Keith Simonton
Color plate section is between pages 170 and 171
8. List of Contributors
Nancy C. Andreasen MD Ph.D. is the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at
the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, USA. She is a recipient of the
President’s National Medal of Science, awarded in part for her work on pioneering
neuroimaging technologies and using them to study processes such as memory and
Laura C. Ball MA is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at York University, Canada and
is the Knowledge Translation and Implementation Coordinator at Waypoint Centre
for Mental Health Care, Canada. She is interested in technologies of the self, feminist
theory, historiography, and integrated knowledge translation. Her recent publications
in this area include an article in History of Psychology titled “Genius without the ‘Great
Man’: New Possibilities for the Historian of Psychology.”
Merim Bilali´c is a professor in the Department of General Psychology and Cognitive
Science at Alpen Adria University Klagenfurt, Austria. He received his D.Phil. from
Oxford University, UK in 2006. He is interested in cognitive and neural mechanisms
in expertise, and his work on the Einstellung effect won the British Psychological
Society’s Award for the Outstanding Doctoral Research Contribution to Psychology
in 2008. He has published on cognitive aspects of expertise in Cognitive Psychology
and Cognition, on their neural implementation in Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General and Journal of Neuroscience, and on individual differences in Intelligence and
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Califor-
nia, Berkeley, USA. He spent most of his career at the University of Minnesota, Min-
neapolis, USA, where he is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology. His
research and teaching career spans social psychology, industrial/organizational psy-
chology, individual differences, evolutionary psychology, and behavior genetics. His
current research interests are in the domains of social attitudes, personality, and values.
Stacey L. Bridges is an instructor at East Central University in Oklahoma City, USA.
Guillermo Campitelli is a senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Australia. He
investigates individual differences in performance, judgments, and decisions with
the ultimate goal of advancing knowledge to help individuals, organizations, and
9. x List of Contributors
societies maximize performance, improve the quality of judgments, and make ratio-
nal and adaptive decisions. His recent article “Deliberate Practice: Necessary but not
sufficient,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, exemplifies his
extensive research in chess. expertise.
Shelley H. Carson Ph.D. is an associate of the Department of Psychology and lec-
turer in extension at Harvard University, USA where she conducts research and teaches
courses on creativity, abnormal psychology, and resilience. Her work on creativity
has been published in national and international peer-reviewed science journals and
has been highlighted in national media, including the Discovery Channel, CNN, and
National Public Radio. She is also author of the award-winning book Your Creative
Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life
and co-author of Almost Depressed: Is My or My Loved One’s Unhappiness a Problem?
David Cope is currently Dickerson Professor Emeritus at the University of California
at Santa Cruz, USA. He is primarily known for his work in computer composition in
musical styles and is the creator of Experiments in Musical Intelligence. His own music
includes nine symphonies, four operas, many symphonic poems, and chamber music
of various kinds. These works have been performed extensively around the world.
His books include New Directions in Music (7th ed.), Techniques of the Contempo-
rary Composer, Computers and Musical Style, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, The
Algorithmic Composer, Virtual Music, and Computer Models of Musical Creativity. He
is also published four novels (Death of Karlin Mulrey, Not by Death Alone, Death by
Proxy, and Mind Over Death), two books of short stories (Of Blood and Tears and My
Gun is Loaded), and a book of 2,000 haiku called Comes the Fiery Night. His algorith-
mic art has been exhibited in several venues as well. He currently lives with his wife in
Santa Cruz, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in Fiume, Italy (now Rijeka, Croatia), to Hungar-
ian parents. He left Italy in 1956 to study in the United States. He received a Ph.D. in
human development from the University of Chicago, USA in 1965 and started teach-
ing at a nearby college. During this time, he developed the basic model of the flow
experience. In 1970 Mihaly returned to the University of Chicago, where he became
chair of the Department of Psychology. In 1999 he accepted an offer to teach at the
Claremont Graduate University in California, USA where he started the first doctoral
program in positive psychology.
Rodica Ioana Damian earned her Ph.D. in social-personality psychology from the
University of California, Davis, USA in 2013. She is currently a postdoctoral research
associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA working with Dr
Brent Roberts. Her research program is aimed at understanding the role of envi-
ronmental antecedents on personality development and downstream consequences
for achievement and creativity. In recognition of her research, Dr Damian has been
awarded the Provost’s Dissertation Year Fellowship and the Social Sciences Dean’s
Doctoral Fellowship for Excellence Award by the University of California, Davis, USA
and the Frank X. Barron Award by the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Cre-
ativity, and the Arts, Division 10 of the American Psychological Association.
Katherine A. Duggan is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside,
USA. She is interested in the relationships between personality, sleep, and health across
10. List of Contributors xi
the lifespan. A Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship Award recipient, Duggan has
uncovered some of the first evidence for lifespan associations between sleep and health.
K. Anders Ericsson is Conradi Eminent Scholar at Florida State University, USA.
He studies expert performance and how expert performers attain their superior per-
formance by acquiring complex cognitive mechanisms through extended deliberate
practice. He has edited the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance
and The Development of Professional Expertise.
Jeff Fajans MA is a doctoral student in positive organizational psychology at Clare-
mont Graduate University, USA. His research focuses on creativity, innovation, and
how mobile technologies can be leveraged as positive developmental interventions to
achieve enhanced outcomes such as well-being, creative performance, and learning.
Gregory J. Feist is currently associate professor of psychology in personality at San
Jos´e State University, USA and director of the MA program in research and exper-
imental psychology. He has also taught at the College of William & Mary and the
University of California at Davis. He received his Ph.D. in 1991 from the University
of California at Berkeley and his undergraduate degree in 1985 from the University
of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is widely published in the psychology of creativity, the
psychology of science, and the development of scientific talent. One major focus of his
work is establishing the psychology of science as a healthy and independent study of
science, along the lines of the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. His major
efforts toward this end are publishing a book entitled Psychology of Science and the
Origins of the Scientific Mind, which was awarded the 2007 William James Book Prize
by the Division of General Psychology, American Psychological Association (APA);
being the founding president of the newly formed “International Society for the Psy-
chology of Science and Technology”; and being the founding editor-in-chief of a new
peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Psychology of Science & Technology.
Howard S. Friedman is distinguished professor of psychology at the University of
California, Riverside, USA. He has received the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award
from the Association for Psychological Science, a career award for applied research.
His latest book is The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long
Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, which summarizes his 20-year scientific
study of the pathways to health and long life. This book won first place in the Well-
ness category in the Books for A Better Life awards competition. Friedman has also
received many teaching awards, including most recently the national Elizabeth Hur-
lock Beckman Award, for “inspiring students to make a difference in the community.”
Victor Ginsburgh, is honorary professor of economics at ECARES, Universit´e libre
de Bruxellles, Belgium and is also affiliated to CORE, Universit´e catholique de Lou-
vain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. He has written and edited many books and is the
author of over 180 papers in applied and theoretical economics, including industrial
organization and general equilibrium analysis. His recent work includes economics of
the arts, wines, and languages; he has published over 70 papers on these topics, some
of which appeared in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Games
and Economic Behavior, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Economic Journal, Journal of
the European Economic Association, Empirical Studies of the Arts, and the Journal of
11. xii List of Contributors
Cultural Economics. He is coeditor (with David Throsby) of the two volumes of the
Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture.
Fernand Gobet is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Liverpool,
UK. His main research interest is the psychology of expertise and talent, which he has
studied in numerous domains including board games, physics, computer program-
ming, music, sport, business, language acquisition, nursing, and physiotherapy. His
research combines experimental methods with computational modelling. He has coau-
thored six books, including Psychologie du Talent et de l’Expertise and Foundations of
David M. Greenberg is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK where
he researches individual differences in musical engagement, including the emotional,
cognitive, and social implications of strong musical experiences.
Christiane Hellmanzik is assistant professor of economics at the University of
Hamburg, Germany. Her research focuses on applied microeconomics, in particu-
lar agglomeration, peer effects, “superstars,” and migration. She holds a BSc in eco-
nomics from the University of Maastricht, an MA in economics from University Col-
lege Dublin, and a Ph.D. in economics from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
Wendy Johnson graduated in mathematics from Occidental College in Los Ange-
les, USA. She spent many years as a consulting casualty actuary in the San Francisco
Bay Area before entering the doctoral program in psychology at the University of
Minnesota, USA, completing her degree in 2005. Her research focuses on individ-
ual differences in mental abilities, personality, academic achievement, and later-life
health, emphasizing transactions between genetic and environmental influences. She
is currently in the Department of Psychology and Centre for Cognitive Ageing and
Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
Benjamin F. Jones is an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management,
Northwestern University, USA, where he also directs the Kellogg Innovation and
Entrepreneurship Initiative, and is a research associate of the National Bureau of Eco-
nomic Research. His research focuses largely on innovation and creativity, with recent
work investigating the role of teamwork in innovation and the relationship between
age and invention. He also studies global economic development, including the roles
of education, climate, and national leadership in explaining the wealth and poverty
of nations. His research has appeared in journals such as Science, the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics and has
been profiled in media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and The
James C. Kaufman is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Con-
necticut, USA. He is the author or editor of 25 books either published or in press,
including Creativity 101 and is the editor of the APA journal Psychology of Popular
Media Culture and the current president of APA’s Division 10 (Psychology of Aes-
thetics, Creativity, and the Arts).
Harrison J. Kell is a postdoctoral fellow at the Study of Mathematically Precocious
Youth at Vanderbilt University, USA. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from Rice
12. List of Contributors xiii
University, USA in 2011. He is interested in how individual differences predict human
performance, broadly construed, and how basic knowledge about human psycholog-
ical diversity can be better utilized in the developmental sciences, in applied settings,
and for developing policy. His research interests in human potential are illustrated in
two recent articles in Psychological Science: “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators”
and “Creativity and Technical Innovation: Spatial Ability’s Unique Role.” The former
underscores the importance of assessing the full range of human potential for under-
standing creativity and the latter highlights neglected talent currently being missed.
Aaron Kozbelt is professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, USA and The Grad-
uate Center of the City University of New York, USA. His research foci lie at the
intersection of creativity and cognition in the arts, particularly on the nature of the
creative process in visual art, archival analyses of lifespan creativity trajectories and
self-evaluation in classical composers, and the psychological basis of skilled artistic
drawing. He is the author of over 60 journal articles and book chapters on these and
other topics and serves on several editorial boards. He has been the recipient of the
American Psychological Association Division 10 Daniel Berlyne Award for Creativity
Research and the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics Alexander Gottlieb
Baumgarten Award for Creativity Research and his research has been funded by the
National Science Foundation.
David Lubinski is professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, USA and co-
director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, a planned 50-year longi-
tudinal study of over 5,000 intellectually talented participants begun in 1971. His
research interests are in modeling the development of exceptional intellectual talent
over the life span (with cognitive, affective, and conative assessments) and uncovering
factors that enhance and attenuate for this population learning and work accomplish-
ments as well as creativity. He is president of the International Society for Intelli-
gence Research (2013) and a trustee for the Society for Multivariate Experimental
Psychology, and he has served as associate editor for the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology. In 1996, he received the APA’s Early Career Award (psychomet-
rics/applied individual differences) and the George A. Millar Outstanding Article in
General Psychology Award; in 2006, he received the Distinguished Scholar Award
from the National Association for Gifted Children.
Robert R. McCrae is retired from the National Institute on Aging, where he con-
ducted research on personality structure, development, and assessment. He is coau-
thor (with Paul T. Costa, Jr.) of Personality in Adulthood: A Five-Factor Theory Per-
spective. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Alexander S. McKay is a graduate student in experimental psychology at Califor-
nia State University at San Bernardino, USA. His research interests include creativity,
personality, and ethics.
Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for
Public Policy Research, USA. His books include Losing Ground, The Bell Curve (with
Richard J. Herrnstein), Human Accomplishment, and Coming Apart.
Jeanne Nakamura is associate professor of psychology, Claremont Graduate Univer-
sity, USA, where she codirects the positive psychology program and the Quality of Life
13. xiv List of Contributors
Research Center. Her BA and Ph.D. were received from the University of Chicago,
USA. She studies positive functioning in a lifespan-developmental context, includ-
ing engagement and creativity, mentoring and good work, and aging well. She is the
coauthor of Good Mentoring and Creativity and Development and coeditor of Applied
Kanchna Ramchandran Ph.D. is a post-doctoral fellow at the Carver College of
Medicine, University of Iowa, USA and an expert in neuroeconomics.
E.J. Reedy is a Ph.D. student in managerial economics at Northwestern Univer-
sity, USA and a Research Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. He has been signif-
icantly involved in the coordination of the Kauffman Foundation’s entrepreneurship
and innovation data-related initiatives, including serving as a principal investigator
with the Kauffman Firm Survey. His research has focused on business dynamics, high-
growth entrepreneurship, and the intersections of great scientific and entrepreneurial
achievement. Prior to joining the Kauffman Foundation, Reedy was a senior analyst
at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and had extensive experience in non-profit
management. He has been a consultant to the National Science Foundation and pub-
lished in journals including the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences and
been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and elsewhere in the
William Todd Schultz is a professor of psychology at Pacific University in Oregon,
USA. In 2005 he edited the groundbreaking Handbook of Psychobiography, and he
now curates the Inner Lives series. He is the author of three books: Tiny Terror: Why
Truman Capote Almost Wrote Answered Prayers, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The
Inner Life of Diane Arbus, and Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith. Schultz lives
in Portland, Oregon.
Dean Keith Simonton earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University, USA and is cur-
rently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis,
USA. His more than 460 publications (including a dozen books) concentrate on
genius, creativity, leadership, talent, and aesthetics. His honors include the William
James Book Award, the Sir Francis Galton Award for Outstanding Contributions to
the Study of Creativity, the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Contributions
to Psychology and the Arts, the Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Media Psy-
chology Award, the George A. Miller Outstanding Article Award, the Theoretical
Innovation Prize in Personality and Social Psychology, the E. Paul Torrance Award
for Creativity from the National Association for Gifted Children, three Mensa Awards
for Excellence in Research, and the Joseph B. Gittler Award for “the most scholarly
contribution to the philosophical foundation of psychological knowledge” from the
American Psychological Foundation.
Robert J. Sternberg is professor of human development at Cornell University, USA.
Peter Suedfeld was born in Hungary. Shortly after the end of World War II his father
and he immigrated to the United States, where he performed his military service
and completed his education (Ph.D., Princeton University, 1963). After teaching at
several US institutions, he moved to the University of British Columbia, Vancou-
ver, Canada as head of the Department of Psychology, and later served as dean of
14. List of Contributors xv
graduate studies. Now emeritus, he continues his research, which focuses on how peo-
ple adapt during and after challenging experiences such as experimental sensory depri-
vation, spaceflight, polar deployment, decision-making under high stress, and ethnic
Frank J. Sulloway is an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the
University of California, Berkeley, USA. The recipient of a MacArthur Award (1984–
1989), he has focused his research on personality development and family dynamics,
especially as they relate to creative achievement. He has also conducted research in
evolutionary psychology, on the evolution of Darwin’s finches (including reproduc-
tive success, anti-predator responses, and adaptive divergence), and in the history of
science (Darwin, Freud, and revolutionary innovations).
Paul Thagard is professor of philosophy and director of the cognitive science program
at the University of Waterloo, Canada. His many books include The Brain and the
Meaning of Life and The Cognitive Science of Science.
Bruce A. Weinberg is professor of economics at the Ohio State University, USA and
research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Institute for
the Study of Labor, Bonn, Germany. His work on science and innovation studies how
creativity varies over the life cycle and how an individual’s own creativity is affected by
the presence of other important innovators. He has also studied migration of innova-
tors, trends in innovative competitiveness across countries, and the economic impacts
of innovation. His research has been supported by the Federal Reserve, the National
Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Templeton Founda-
tion and has been published in journals including the American Economic Review,
the Journal of Political Economy, the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sci-
ences, and Science. He has advised policy makers at a variety of levels and has received
extensive international media coverage.
Robert W. Weisberg is professor of psychology and director of graduate training at
Temple University, USA. His research focuses on the cognitive processes underlying
creative thinking. He has published numerous books and papers presenting case stud-
ies of creative thinking at the highest levels as well as experimental investigations of
creative thinking in the laboratory.
Sheila Weyers of the Universit´e catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
has a degree in philosophy and is interested in aesthetics and its relations with art
history. She has published on movies, including remakes, and on the art historian de
Piles; she is now working on canons. Her papers appeared in Artibus et Historiae, the
Journal of Cultural Economics, Annales d’Histoire de l’Art et d’Arch´eologie, Poetics and
Empirical Studies in the Arts.
Ellen Winner is professor and chair of psychology at Boston College, USA and senior
research associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, USA. She
directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and
gifted children. She is the author of over 100 articles and four books: Invented Worlds:
The Psychology of the Arts, The Point of Words: Children’s Understanding of Metaphor
and Irony, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (translated into six languages and win-
ner of the Alpha Sigma Nu National Jesuit Book Award in Science), and is coauthor
15. xvi List of Contributors
of Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. She served as pres-
ident of APA’s Division 10, Psychology and the Arts, in 1995–1996, and in 2000
received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar
in Psychology and the Arts from Division 10. She is a Fellow of the American Psy-
chological Association (Division 10) and of the International Association of Empirical
Genius is certainly not an esoteric or obscure topic. Its broad interest can be easily
demonstrated using the now-standard “Google test.” Just google the word and see
how many websites pop up. The last time I did so, about 330,000,000 sites emerged.
To be sure, few of these can be considered scientific treatments of the subject. On the
contrary, the term is often used for its marketing potential. One of my favorite T-shirts
reads “Guinness, Gaelic for Genius.” Hence, a better reflection of its status might be
obtained using Google Scholar, in which case we get about 1,040,000 results – a
still impressive figure. It is also gratifying to find a few of my own contributions to
the subject show up in the output. After all, I have been studying genius ever since
I started working on my doctoral dissertation over 40 years ago! Admittedly, I did
not use “genius” in the title of every publication that emerged since then. Because
genius assumes many different forms, it is often possible to use a more specific term
as the subject of research – like greatness, eminence, achievement, creativity, talent,
or leadership. Indeed, over the past four decades, I have studied the phenomenon as
it appears in science and technology, philosophy, painting and sculpture, poetry and
drama, music, opera, cinema, politics, and even war – from scientific to military genius
and (almost) everything between.
Among the works listed on the initial page of the Google Scholar output is the
first classic contribution to the subject: Galton’s (1869) Hereditary Genius. Subse-
quent book-length treatments with “genius” somewhere in the main title include
Lombroso’s (1891) The Man of Genius, Ellis’s (1904) A Study of British Genius,
Cox’s (1926) The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, Bowerman’s (1947)
Studies in Genius, Becker’s (1978) The Mad Genius Controversy, Ehrenwald’s (1984)
The Anatomy of Genius, Hershman and Lieb’s (1988) The Key to Genius, Eysenck’s
(1995) Genius, Howe’s (1999) Genius Explained, my own 1999 Origins of Genius
(Simonton, 1999), Miller’s (2000) Insights of Genius, Galenson’s (2005) Old Mas-
ters and Young Geniuses, Sawyer’s (2007) Group Genius, and Ness’s (2013) Genius
Unmasked. To this list might be added Murray’s (1989) edited volume on Genius: A
History of the Idea. Hence, genius has been a popular subject of scholarly inquiry for
well over a century.
Yet something is strikingly missing in all of the above titles: the word “handbook.”
Indeed, a Handbook of Genius has never been published, at least not in any of the prin-
cipal languages of science. This omission can be verified by conducting yet another
17. xviii Preface
Google search, which now elicits nothing – no edited volume containing authorita-
tive chapters covering key aspects of the phenomenon. What makes this absence even
more astonishing is the obvious abundance of handbooks concerning closely related
topics, such as creativity, leadership, talent, and giftedness. As an example, four dif-
ferent creativity handbooks were published between 1989 and 2010, or about two
per decade. Any “handbook of genius” thus remains conspicuously absent from the
Consequently, when Andrew Peart at Wiley Blackwell asked me to consider editing
just such a handbook, I jumped at the chance. Opportunity does not knock that often.
Because I had already written chapters for previous Wiley Blackwell handbooks, I had
prior experience working with them. More importantly, this new project seemed an
ideal way to culminate my own research by bringing it together with the best work
conducted by my contemporaries. Furthermore, the fact that such a handbook was
long overdue was proven by how easy it was to recruit expert contributors. The first-
pass acceptance rate for my invitations was nearly perfect! The outcome is this volume
containing substantially more than two dozen chapters. These chapters have been
organized into seven parts.
Part I deals with the various perspectives on genius. After a treatment of the role of
genius in history – both as a discipline and as a phenomenon – the next four chap-
ters discuss the main scientific methods for studying genius, namely, psychobiogra-
phy, face-to-face interview, psychometric measurement, and historiometric analysis.
Because I wrote the last chapter, I decided to use it as a transition linking the first
four chapters with virtually all of the chapters that follow. It may be noted that one
major mainstream method is missing, namely laboratory experiments. For reasons too
obvious to mention, it is extremely rare for world-acclaimed geniuses to volunteer to
serve as experimental participants in some professor’s lab!
Part II turns to the individual processes that underlie the works of geniuses. The
mind–brain sciences have experienced a substantial growth in recent years, so it may
not surprise anyone that the first chapter is devoted to the neuroscience of genius.
The next two chapters concentrate on specific examples of creative genius in order
to decipher the cognitive and related processes underlying their contributions. This
part closes with a chapter that raises a fascinating question: If computer programs can
simulate the musical creativity of recognized geniuses, such as J. S. Bach, Ludwig van
Beethoven, and Scott Joplin, does this indicate that genius is far more ordinary than
people imagine? Readers probably do not need to be reminded that it was not long
ago that a computer chess program beat Gary Kasparov, an undeniable chess genius
(Hsu, 2002). Without a doubt, nothing mystical would be required.
The foregoing conclusion might be interpreted as saying that geniuses are just like
the rest of us. Yet this interpretation is wrong. Geniuses tend to feature some personal
characteristics that make them identifiably different. This conclusion is established
in the chapters making up Part III, which all concern the attributes of geniuses.
Although genius is often associated with exceptional intelligence – and frequently
defined as a superlative IQ – other individual-difference variables are involved as well
(see also Simonton, 2011). At the same time, there is no such thing as a single generic
type of genius. Instead, genius comes in different flavors depending on the domain
The obvious next question concerns the origins of genius, the central subject of
Part IV. Although the issue about whether genius is born or made goes back centuries,
18. Preface xix
Francis Galton (1874) was the first to formulate the question in scientific research. Not
surprisingly, the chapters span the full range of treatments, from genetic factors to
environmental influences. This discussion must necessarily include the critical relation
between child prodigies and adulthood genius. Although prodigies are often loosely
referred to as geniuses in the popular media, that designation may add more confusion
The last remark suggests the need to understand the trajectories of genius, the focus
of the five chapters in Part V. Actually, these chapters form a kind of intellectual sand-
wich. The middle three chapters all use historiometric methods to study the course
of a creative career in three domains, namely, science, music, and literature. On the
outside are chapters that report the results of the two most ambitious psychometric
longitudinal studies ever conducted. Although the last two chapters use very different
methods, they both introduce the important issue of life expectancies – the terminal
point of the trajectory.
Up to this point, genius has been treated as an entirely individualistic phenomenon.
Yet as pointed out long ago, genius takes place in a larger sociocultural milieu
(Candolle, 1873; Kroeber, 1944). This point is well demonstrated in the chapters in
Part VI that in various ways treat contexts of genius. For example, some of the contrib-
utors scrutinize the recognition process. Although people will sometimes speak of the
“neglected genius,” from the standpoint of the social context, this expression becomes
an oxymoron. Other contributors devote more attention to the factors that affect the
emergence of genius that will earn the recognition not just of contemporaries but also
Part VII concludes the handbook with a single chapter dealing with prospects.
Besides bringing everything together, here the editor endeavors to lay out the future
history of genius science. Although highly speculative, it is hoped that these specula-
tions will inspire research for another century or more.
One final word: I wish to dedicate this handbook to the memory of a deceased senior
colleague, namely, Robert S. Albert, who passed away in 2011. Although probably
nobody knew until now, Bob played a major role in my career-long pursuit of genius
as an important topic of scientific research. In 1975, the same year that I officially
earned my Ph.D., Bob published an article on genius in the American Psychologist,
the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association (Albert, 1975). This
article provided some professional legitimacy to the question that has largely occu-
pied me ever since. Moreover, not too long afterward, Bob edited an anthology on
Genius and Eminence that reprinted some classic contributions to that topic (Albert,
1983). Because the volume included studies that are more recent as well, it amply
demonstrated that genius was by no means an obsolete target for empirical inquiry. In
less than a decade, this anthology came out in a new edition with some additions as
well as subtractions (Albert, 1992). Imagine my gratification to discover that one of
my very own publications was included among the additions (viz. Simonton, 1991). I
had now been certified as contributing to the area I found so fascinating! Yet Bob did
not stop here. Shortly after the second edition of Genius and Eminence, he convinced
another publisher to put out a collection of my most important scientific journal arti-
cles devoted to genius and creativity (Simonton, 1997). Besides personally selecting
19. xx Preface
and organizing the dozen featured articles, Bob wrote a very fine preface. How many
scholars receive this magnitude of encouragement only two decades into their careers?
Hence, I seriously wonder whether the Handbook of Genius would ever have hap-
pened had not my guardian angel appeared at key moments earlier in my career. In a
sense, the handbook counts as the culmination of another’s career now unfortunately
The Editor, 30 September, 2013
Albert, R. S. (1975). Toward a behavioral definition of genius. American Psychologist, 30, 140–
Albert, R. S. (Ed.). (1983). Genius and eminence: The social psychology of creativity and excep-
tional achievement. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.
Albert, R. S. (Ed.). (1992). Genius and eminence (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.
Becker, G. (1978). The mad genius controversy: A study in the sociology of deviance. Beverly Hills,
CA: Sage Publications.
Bowerman, W. G. (1947). Studies in genius. New York, NY: Philosophical Library.
Candolle, A. de (1873). Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis deux si`ecles. Geneve: Georg.
Cox, C. (1926). The early mental traits of three hundred geniuses. Stanford, CA: Stanford Uni-
Ehrenwald, J. (1984). The anatomy of genius: Split brains and global minds. New York, NY:
Ellis, H. (1904). A study of British genius. London, UK: Hurst & Blackett.
Eysenck, H. J. (1995). Genius: The natural history of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
Galenson, D. W. (2005). Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. London, UK:
Galton, F. (1874). English men of science: Their nature and nurture. London, UK: Macmillan.
Hershman, D. J., & Lieb, J. (1988). The key to genius: Manic-depression and the creative life.
Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Howe, M. J. A. (1999). Genius explained. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hsu, F. (2002). Behind Deep Blue: Building the computer that defeated the world chess champion.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kroeber, A. L. (1944). Configurations of culture growth. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Lombroso, C. (1891). The man of genius. London, UK: Scott.
Miller, A. I. (2000). Insights of genius: Imagery and creativity in science and art. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Murray, P. (Ed.). (1989). Genius: The history of an idea. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Ness, R. B. (2013) Genius unmasked. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sawyer, R. K. (2007). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York, NY: Basic
Simonton, D. K. (1991). Personality correlates of exceptional personal influence: A note on
Thorndike’s (1950) creators and leaders. Creativity Research Journal, 4, 67–78.
20. Preface xxi
Simonton, D. K. (1997). Genius and creativity: Selected papers. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.
Simonton, D. K. (1999). Origins of genius: Darwinian perspectives on creativity. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press.
Simonton, D. K. (2011). Exceptional talent and genius. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, A. Furn-
ham, & S. Stumm (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences (pp. 635–655). New York,
NY: Wiley Blackwell.
21. Part I
The Genius in History
Laura C. Ball
The History of the world is but the Biography of great men. (Carlyle, 1841, p. 34)
Geniuses throughout history have fascinated academic and pop-culture authors alike.
We consume autobiographies, biographies, films, histories, and academic theories of
the outliers, the heroes, the Great Men, the geniuses. They are historical celebrities.
We are captivated by them, their lives, and their work, but also their stories provide
readers with a source of affiliation and inspiration. Yet, despite the attention given to
their seemingly inevitable greatness, these celebratory histories tell us little about why
they are considered to be great.
In this chapter, I explore the kinds of geniuses who have captured our attention
over time, the ways in which they have been depicted, and the methods used to tell
their stories. First, I outline who have been labeled as geniuses, and how these “great
men” have been identified. As most historiography of genius flows from Thomas
Carlyle’s (1841) classic text On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, his
distinction between “heroes” and “geniuses” will be discussed specifically. Particular
attention will also be paid to how psychologists entered the dialogue and their
contributions to the narrative. Next, I review the different historiographic and psy-
chological methods employed to study the life stories and achievements of identified
geniuses. Finally, I question what qualities, characteristics, and events are privileged
by authors using each of these historical methods, and therefore how they reveal the
genius in history.
The Relationship between History and Genius
Thomas Carlyle’s (1841) On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History is a classic
text on historiography, which is now seen by historians as representative of an outdated
form of historical argumentation and analysis. Carlylian – or Great Man – history is
gendered, celebratory, whiggish, and presentist. Carlyle expressly believed that history
is – and should be – an exercise in hero-worship. The first lecture in the text, “The
Hero as Divinity,” encapsulates his perspective on historical subjects. To begin the
lecture, Carlyle says:
The Wiley Handbook of Genius, First Edition. Edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
23. 4 Laura C. Ball
We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on Great Men, their manner of appear-
ance in our world’s business, how they have shaped themselves in the world’s history,
what ideas men formed of them, what work they did; – on Heroes, namely and on their
reception and performance; what I call Hero-worship and the Heroic in human affairs.
(1841, p. 3)
To current historians and scholars interested in genius, Carlyle’s perspective seems
foreign. He describes the genius and the hero as “divine” and “God-inspired.” Yet,
while this perspective is certainly out of step with current historical and psychological
sensibilities, it did not arise in a vacuum. To further explore how the “Great Man”
came to enter the world of historiography (historical methods), we must first examine
the etymology of the word “genius.”
From a historical perspective, the term “genius” is problematic: it has had a long
history of use, and has acquired multiple meanings over time, each describing vastly
different phenomena. It is not uncommon to see genius referring to eminence (e.g.,
Galton, 1865, 1869/1892), giftedness (e.g., Terman, 1916, 1925), or the character
or zeitgeist of a time period or geographical region (e.g., Alaya, 1977).
The first known instance of the term genius being used is during the Roman Empire,
where it referred to a male spiritual protector or guardian spirit (Murray, 1989;
Simonton, 2009a). Typically, the protection offered by a genius was applied to indi-
viduals, families, and physical spaces. Every person, family, city, body of water, or other
important physical structure had its own genius. In addition, a genius could also refer
to the character of a society, and the “spirit of the times” or zeitgeist.
Over time, genius began to be more intimately connected with individuals, and
ultimately came to bear directly upon their personalities. However, it was not until the
Enlightenment when the connotations of the word took on its present implications:
genius referring to the superior or unique abilities of an individual person (Albert,
1969; Murray 1989; Simonton, 2009a). During the Enlightenment
a striking and fundamental change occurs in the meaning of the word: up till this time,
genius as personal, protective spirit had been something every man possessed, now genius
as an extraordinary creative power becomes the prerogative of a highly selected and priv-
ileged few. (Murray, 1989, p. 3)
However, despite this shift, the older connotations had not yet faded away. Samuel
Johnson’s (1755) A Dictionary of the English Language reflects this transition, where
he provides the following definitions of genius: (1) the protecting or ruling power of
men, places, or things; (2) a man endowed with superior faculties; (3) mental power
or faculties; (4) disposition of nature by which any one is qualified for some peculiar
employment; and (5) nature, disposition. Clearly, only the first definition is consistent
with the original Roman meaning. This is probably because another similar word had
also been transported from Latin into the English language – ingenium.
Ingenium referred to both a natural disposition and an innate ability. It is a qual-
ity that cannot be developed through time and education, and only a rare few are
lucky enough to be born with this kind of talent (Murray, 1989). When translated
into English,1 ingenium became genius as well, therefore adding to the complex-
ity of the original definition. As a result, the original spiritually linked term sur-
vived and became entangled with the notion of natural ability (Derrida, 2003/2006;
24. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 5
Murray, 1989). This way of thinking about genius remained popular throughout the
Looking at Carlyle’s work through this lens, his vision of history as hero-worship
was completely commensurate with academic thinking at the time: talent was linked to
divine inspiration. Even though the hero differed from the genius – the former seen in
myth, religion, politics, and the military, and the latter in the arts and sciences – both
were to be celebrated for their divine gifts. In this way, Carlyle was able to advance a
unique perspective on history that was driven by the divinely inspired genius and the
mythical hero, forming a historiographic approach that is expressly a celebration of
these “Great Men.”
History and the Psychology of Genius
Two decades after Carlyle’s famous lectures on heroes and hero-worship, Darwin’s
(1859) On the Origin of Species was published. Not only did this classic text come
to revolutionize the study of biology, but also it transformed the then-burgeoning
discipline of psychology. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was a devout follower2 of
this new theory of evolution, and sought to apply it to his own interests.
Galton was interested in what drives greatness, and he posited that “natural ability” –
a trait that would be similar to intelligence – was at its root. However, as a working
test for intelligence had yet to be developed, he turned to the next best thing: histor-
ical records. Through kinship studies of eminent individuals, Galton believed that the
hereditary nature of natural ability could be inferred (Galton, 1865, 1869/1892).
In Hereditary Genius (1869/1892), Galton presented a kinship study of eminent
judges, military commanders, scientists, poets, and oarsmen, among others, which did
indeed show a correlation among family members: Where one individual in a family
was considered to be an eminent contributor to society, successive generations of men
often followed in a similar trajectory. He therefore concluded that ability is hereditary.
Galton further expressed the belief that certain psychological factors, such as persis-
tence, were essential to the expression of one’s natural ability; however, social and
other environmental factors had little bearing. He said, “If a man is gifted with vast
intellectual ability, eagerness to work, and power of working, I cannot comprehend
how such a man should be repressed” (1869/1892, p. 39). In essence, geniuses are
born, not made; nature, not nurture.
Galton’s approach has been very influential in the psychology of genius literature.
Besides defining one of the primary narratives – “genius” as a hereditary quality
that can be identified, measured, and predicted, he also began to move the under-
standing of genius as something “Other” and divine towards an understanding of
genius as the product of positive evolutionary forces (particularly sexual selection).
However, Galton’s work was also important because he was the first to use histor-
ical data to argue his thesis. While Galton belongs to the Carlyle’s “Great Man”
school, their approaches differed drastically. Carlyle’s approach used genius to shape
the telling of history, while Galton’s used history to shape the science and psychology
However, some authors at the time took issue with Carlyle’s and Galton’s main
premises – that eminent individuals are worthy of study, and that they are the primary
mechanism that drives society forward. Herbert Spencer, who is widely considered
25. 6 Laura C. Ball
to be the cofounder of Social Darwinism along with Galton, did not ascribe to the
“Great Man” school of thought. Spencer said:
The genesis of societies by the action of great men may be comfortably believed so long
as, resting in general notions, you do not ask for particulars. But now, if, dissatisfied with
vagueness, we demand that our ideas shall be brought into focus and exactly defined, we
discover the hypothesis to be utterly incoherent. (1878/1921, pp. 29–30)
Spencer believed that the thesis inherent in Carlyle’s and Galton’s work was fatally
flawed. The psychological characteristics, achievements, and life histories of eminent
individuals do not provide a thorough explanation of discovery and social evolution.
The historian, John Fiske – one of Spencer’s disciples – elaborated on this point:
History is something more than biography. Without the least disrespect to the memories
of the great statesmen of Greece and Rome, it may safely be said that one might learn all of
Plutarch’s Lives by heart, and still have made very little progress toward comprehending
the reasons why the Greek states were never able to form a coherent political aggregate,
or why the establishment of despotism at Rome was involved in the conquest of the
Mediterranean world. The true way to approach such historical problems as these is not
to speculate about the personal characteristics of Lysander or C. Gracchus, but to consider
the popular assemblies of the Greeks and Romans. (1881, p. 81)
Therefore, in order to understand greatness, we need to go beyond Carlyle’s Great
Man histories, and we also need to dispense with Galton’s inherited characteristics the-
sis. The key to genius is not within the individual, but within society itself. As Spencer
said, “Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him” (1878/1921,
p. 31). From this perspective, genius is made, not born; nurture, rather than nature.
In this way, the Spencerian school uses the existence of genius as a signpost to point
to interesting political, social, and cultural trends. As in the Carlylian tradition, the
genius shapes history, but instead of exploring individual life histories (as in the
Carlylian tradition), or psychological characteristics (in the Galtonian tradition),
genius is used to explore social histories.
During this debate between Social Darwinists, a third perspective on the relation-
ship between genius and history began to emerge in American psychology. James
Mark Baldwin (1913/2001) argued for a midway point between the Galtonian and
Spencerian positions. Building on evolutionary theory, genius could be thought of
as a variation3 from the mean – the “average man.” While this premise is shared by
Galton, Baldwin explicitly cautioned against understanding genius to be a product of
variations in natural ability. Rather, genius should be thought of as the expression of
good judgment and social fit. An individual may create works of art or scholarship,
but if they have bad judgment and select the wrong ideas to bring to fruition, they
will never be labeled as a genius – and depending on the nature of those ideas, they
may even be labeled “mad” or “bad” instead. For example, Caligula may have become
the Emperor of Rome, but he clearly selected the wrong ideas to bring to fruition.
Historians depict him as a cruel tyrant, whose rule was ended by assassination. In the
end, he is remembered as both mad and bad. On the other hand, if an individual were
able to apply good judgment to the selection of ideas, then they may have a chance at
26. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 7
becoming a genius. Of course, whether an idea is truly “good” is a matter of social fit,
and they will only be remembered as a genius if society recognizes the value in their
work. In this way, Baldwin’s work represents a midpoint between Galton’s psycholog-
ical, nativist approach, and Spencer’s sociogenic approach; it straddles the nature and
Baldwin’s work marks an interesting turn in the relationship between genius, his-
tory, and psychology. First, where Baldwin’s work concerns the relationship between
genius and history, “social fit” can be used to explain fluctuations in the use of “genius”
as an appellation to describe a particular individual over time. For example, Anto-
nio Salieri was a well-respected and widely sought-after composer in his time. He
also taught many other great composers including Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, and
Ludwig van Beethoven. However, now his work is rarely considered to be of the caliber
of his students’, and the label of genius is instead given to one of his contemporaries –
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Second, where Baldwin’s work concerns the relationship between history and the
psychology of genius, the focus on normal variation in ability continues to uphold the
understanding that genius is not divine. Baldwin said,
To know that the greatest men of earth are men who think as I do, but deeper, and see
the real as I do, but clearer, who work the goal that I do, but faster, and serve humanity
as I do, but better, – that may be an incitement to my humility, but it is also an inspiration
in my life. (1913/2001, p. 177)
Here, histories of genius serve Galton’s project in that they are a way to better under-
stand human development and ability. Baldwin’s quote also hints at the role that stories
such as these have in providing guidance, inspiration, and a sense of affiliation in oth-
ers (see also Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2012; S¨oderqvist, 1996). This will be expanded on
in greater detail below. And yet, despite the importance that Baldwin places on indi-
vidual variation in ability and judgment, he simultaneously stresses the role of social
fit as the mechanism for social evolution. Furthermore, the potential for talent that
resides within the individual is the result of population-level variations, but that poten-
tial can only be realized in the context of education and other positive environmental
pressures (cf. organic selection, and the “Baldwin Effect”; Burman, in press; Wozniak,
2009). In other words, genius is both born and made.
The relationship between genius, psychology, and history continues to be informed
by the theories espoused by Carlyle, Galton, Spencer, and Baldwin. For example, in his
contribution to the psychology of genius literature, Howard Gardner (1997) adopted
the Carlylian “Great Man” approach in order to develop and illustrate his theory
of extraordinariness. However, the Great Man style of historiography also informs
notable histories of psychology, such as A History of Experimental Psychology (Boring,
1929), History of Psychology in Autobiography (Murchison, 1961), Great Psychologists
(Watson, 1963), and Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology (Kimble & Wertheimer, 1998),
among many others (see Ball, 2012). On the other hand, while Galton’s and Spencer’s
views have little traction with modern psychologists, falling too far to either side of the
nature versus nurture debate, they still frame discussions on the topic (see Simonton,
2009a). The moderate position held by Baldwin seems to adequately characterize the
psychology of genius literature today. Admittedly, some do fall more on the side of
27. 8 Laura C. Ball
nature (e.g., Simonton, 1999a, 2008), and some more on the side of nurture (e.g.,
Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-R¨omer, 1993; Howe, 1999). Yet each presents a slightly
more nuanced and complex picture of how genius emerges.
The Psychology of Genius: Theory Across History
Given the complexity of the genius literature, it can be difficult to paint a complete
picture of the philosophical and theoretical narratives that inform our understanding
of the psychology of genius. The following is a system for understanding the liter-
ature, which is based on three psychological and one statistical construct: (1) cre-
ativity; (2) madness; (3) intelligence; and (4) eminence. Of course, this is an overly
simplistic and imperfect categorization, as many contributors to the psychology of
genius literature have blended interests (e.g., Andreasen, 1987, 2005; Eysenck, 1995;
Jamison, 1989, 1993; J. C. Kaufman, 2001; S. B. Kaufman, Christopher & J. C.
Kaufman, 2008). Therefore, for ease of explanation in this context, I have included
their contributions in the category to which they seem to have awarded the most
The creative genius
Creativity has had the longest tradition of research with respect to its relationship
to genius, and is consequently one of the most well-known themes. The theoretical
tradition of the creative genius theory dates back to the Enlightenment, and Immanuel
Kant’s (1790/2000) rational aesthetics. While Kant, and other proponents of this
tradition (e.g., J. C. Kaufman, 2001; S. B. Kaufman, Christopher & J. C. Kaufman,
2008), may disagree on whether genius is expressed in the arts alone, or both the arts
and sciences together, they do agree on several points. There is a strong consensus
that the creativity of a genius is innate and cannot be learned. Furthermore, they
tend to emphasize that this creativity is, to some extent, outside the control of the
genius. This notion continues to propagate the spiritual undertones to the term, as
well as the idea of spontaneous creation for works of genius. It also explains why many
of these authors also emphasize the link between creativity and madness; perhaps it is
the sheer uncontrollable force of their creativity (and all that is associated with it, e.g.,
social exclusion) that drives them mad sooner or later. Examples of this type of genius
are often drawn from the arts: music (e.g., Mozart), art (e.g., Pablo Picasso), dance
(e.g., Mikhail Baryshnikov), poetry (e.g., Emily Dickinson), literature (e.g., William
Shakespeare), and film (Steven Spielberg).
The mad genius
The second most prevalent theory is what is sometimes known as the “mad genius
syndrome” (Simonton, 1999a). Proponents of this position (e.g., Andreasen, 1987,
2005; Jamison, 1989, 1993; Kretschmer, 1929/1970; Lombroso, 1889/1905) hold
that there is a strong correlation between genius and insanity, madness, or mental
illness. This categorization covers different sides of the “dark side” of genius: the
“good” genius who struggles with mental illness and/or substance abuse, and the
28. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 9
“evil” genius who performs acts so terrible that they could not possibly be sane. While
the proponents of this position have not achieved a consensus as to whether or not
there is a biological basis to genius, they do tend to share a disbelief in the eugenicist
notion that breeding geniuses would be beneficial for humanity (see Galton, 1865,
1869/1892; Terman, 1925). While the mad genius may produce some benefits for
humanity, overall their presence is thought to be problematic, and could in some cases
pose more of threat than any great good. Similarly to the “creative genius” literature,
examples of the “good” mad genius are often drawn from the arts: music (e.g., Kurt
Cobain), art (e.g., Vincent Van Gogh), dance (e.g., Isadora Duncan), poetry (e.g.,
Edgar Allan Poe), literature (e.g., Virginia Woolf), and film (e.g., Marilyn Monroe).
On occasion, however, there are examples to be found in the sciences (e.g., John
Nash). Examples of the “evil” genius are almost exclusively drawn from the monarchy,
political, and military leaders (e.g., Vlad III, known as Vlad the Impaler) or criminal
activities (e.g., Jack the Ripper).
The intelligent genius
The third type, the intelligent genius, has not enjoyed quite as long a tradition as
the previous two categories. In the early 20th century, it managed to gain consider-
able ground in the psychological literature, mainly through Lewis M. Terman’s work
(1916, 1925; see also Cox, 1926; Hollingworth, 1926, 1942; Miles & Wolfe, 1936).
However, as Robert S. Albert (1969) has noted, the use of the term “genius” was
gradually phased out and replaced with the notion of “giftedness” by the mid-20th
century. Therefore, taken from this perspective, giftedness research (especially longi-
tudinal studies) can also be thought of as part of the larger lineage of research on the
psychology of genius.
The philosophical roots of the intelligent genius tradition date back to the German
Romantic philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1883/1964), in The World as Will and
Idea. However, this stream of thought remained fairly isolated in philosophy. Rather,
it was the psychometric and historiometric traditions that began in England with
Galton (1865, 1869/1892) that got taken up by psychology proper. Unfortunately
for proponents of the intelligent genius theories, however, there is little similarity
between them. They are divided on the issues of sociohistorical influence, how genius
may be recognized, and what intelligence is at the most basic level (see, for example,
Gardner, 1997; Terman, 1925). However, there are two distinct points of conver-
gence beyond their primary focus on intelligence: They all acknowledge that genius
is an innate gift that cannot be taught; and genius is, to some extent, a hereditary
quality. Examples of intelligent geniuses are, unsurprisingly, most often drawn from
the sciences (e.g., Albert Einstein), and more recently developers of technology (e.g.,
Steve Jobs) and business (e.g., Warren Buffett).
The eminent genius
The final type is the eminent genius, which is most clearly evident in the works of
Albert (1975), Castle (1913), and Cattell (1903, 1906, 1910). While most of the
authors espousing this position believed that eminence is not sufficient for defining
genius in and of itself, they did believe that one had to become eminent before being
29. 10 Laura C. Ball
considered a genius, and that this step was the most crucial element. Albert (1975)
produced an often-cited definition of genius that is based on this notion:
A person of genius is anyone who, regardless of other characteristics he may possess or
have attributed to him, produces, over a long period of time, a large body of work that
has a significant influence on many persons for many years; requiring these people, as
well as the individual in question, to come to terms with a different set of attitudes, ideas,
viewpoints, or techniques. (p. 144)
From this perspective, it almost does not matter whether someone has become known
as a genius because of their outstanding creativity, intelligence, or even madness –
they must all be recognized as genius first. Therefore, fame, celebrity, notoriety, or
eminence is a prerequisite for genius; it is a necessary condition. Examples of people
who are eminent geniuses may come from any domain, as recognition is the only
precondition. However, there are those who could be said to have become eminent
who may not have been otherwise if it were not for birth right (e.g., Henry VIII),
marriage (e.g., Anne Boleyn), celebrity (e.g., Paris Hilton) or other factors external
to the person, such as being victims of, or surviving, a tragedy (e.g., Margaret Brown,
known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”).
The Psychology of Genius: Historical Methods
Theoretical orientation and explanation are not the only axes upon which the history
of the psychology of genius literature can be explored; methodology has always been a
defining feature of psychological explanation. As with the broader field of psychology,
the psychology of genius literature is dominated by two styles of analysis: quantitative
and qualitative. It should be noted that what follows is, of necessity, a brief account
of the different methods used to study genius. For a more complete discussion, refer
to Simonton’s (1990, 1999b, 2009b) writings.
In general, the quantitative approaches to the psychology of genius pay homage to
Galton, who first brought nomothetic and statistical reasoning to bear on the psy-
chological study of genius. However, contemporary methods can most clearly be seen
in Lewis M. Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius project, where there is a definable
research study design (longitudinal), the use of psychometric assessments (e.g., the
Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales; Terman, 1925), and the use of what has come to
be known as historiometry (Cox, 1926).
Psychometrics Psychometric studies of genius are relatively rare, simply because rec-
ognized geniuses are in short supply – most have long since passed away and fall into
the category of “historical subjects” rather than “research participants.” That said,
there are some longitudinal studies of gifted students and cross-sectional assessments
of talented adults that have contributed to the psychology of genius literature (e.g.,
Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Lubinski, Webb, Morelock, & Benbow, 2001). Given
that this method does not typically make use of historical data, a discussion of this topic
more properly belongs in the “science of genius.” Therefore, I will simply outline the
30. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 11
early development of this method in the psychology of genius literature, rather than
its more modern usage.
Galton was a pioneer in the psychometric approach to the study of genius. His
anthropometric laboratory allowed him to conduct large-scale assessments of individ-
ual differences on factors such as reaction times, sensory acuity, height, weight, finger
prints, and so on (Fancher, 1985; Simonton, 2009a). His work, published in Inquiries
into Human Faculty and its Development (1883), inspired James McKeen Cattell to
undertake similar assessments (Fancher, 1985). However, it was through the work of
one of his graduate students – Clark Wissler – that Galton’s (and Cattell’s) methods
were eventually found to be ineffective (Wissler, 1901).
In 1925, Terman published the first volume of a book series chronicling a large-
scale longitudinal study of gifted children. Each participant, identified as gifted using
the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales (see Terman, 1916), was followed through-
out their lives by the Stanford research team. During that time, the participants and
their families were asked to complete a large number of psychometric assessments,
including personality tests, and assessments of their mental and physical health. Many
demographic details (e.g., marital status) were also tracked. While the Genetic Studies
of Genius project was in its infancy, another psychologist – Leta S. Hollingworth – was
also doing studies of gifted children (1926, 1942). Both of these studies have con-
tributed greatly to the psychology of genius literature, as well as to our understanding
of gifted children and adults.
Historiometrics This is by far the most often used quantitative approach to studying
the psychology of genius. Historiometry is the “scientific discipline in which nomo-
thetic hypotheses about human behavior are tested by applying quantitative analyses to
data concerning historical individuals” (Simonton, 1990, p. 3). Historiometric stud-
ies typically draw from at least one of four potential sources: (1) personality sketches;
(2) developmental histories; (3) content analyses; and (4) expert surveys (Simonton,
2009b). Overall, this is a statistical approach to the presentation of historical argu-
ments that has resonated with psychologists (and social historians).
Within the genius literature, Galton’s (1869) article “Hereditary Talent and
Character” was the first foray into a statistical understanding of eminence, which
was further developed in his book Hereditary Genius (1869/1892). In these publica-
tions, where Galton attempted to determine if natural ability was an inherited quality,
he looked at how many eminent individuals had family who were also eminent in
their time. He also tracked the degree of the relationship, whether they were first
relations (e.g., parent–child, siblings), second relations (grandparent–child, uncle–
nephew, cousins), and so on. This kinship, or pedigree, method of analysis not only
influenced later historiometric studies, but also came to contribute to the development
of behavioral genetics.4
Following on the heels of these publications, Cattell published a series of articles
where he further developed Galton’s methodology (Cattell, 1903, 1906, 1910). He
quantified “eminence” by developing a list of the 1000 individuals who occupied the
most space across a number of encyclopedias and other reference works. One of his
students, Cora Sutton Castle, also adopted this methodology to do a study of eminent
women (Castle, 1913). Havelock Ellis (1904) further refined the method by exam-
ining biographical characteristics of eminent individuals, such as birth order, class,
marital status, and other demographic factors.
31. 12 Laura C. Ball
The first psychologist to use the term “historiometry” in their study was Catharine
Cox (1926). For her dissertation, under the direction of Terman, Cox examined
biographies and archival documents of noted geniuses, such as Galton and John
Stuart Mill. She used this information to generate IQ scores, and then ranked her
eminent historical subjects by that criterion. This is notable because it was the first
attempt to generate a relative ranking of eminent individuals based on psycholog-
ical characteristics thought to relate to genius, rather than by relative eminence
(Cattell’s methodology), which could be influenced by popularity/celebrity, salacious
stories/notoriety/infamy (e.g., sexual exploits, criminal activities), or social position
(e.g., monarch, president; see also Terman, 1940). Later, as Catharine Cox Miles, she
published a further study that compared her IQ estimates to estimates of mental and
physical health (Miles & Wolfe, 1936). Miles’s work has probably had the biggest
influence on current historiometrics, most notably those done by Dean Keith Simon-
ton (e.g., Simonton, 1984, 1994, 2002).5
Other approaches A new form of historical scholarship is emerging, which may pro-
vide new and fresh insights on the psychology of genius. The notion of a “factory” was
first used by Daniel P. Todes (1997, 2002) to describe the way in which Ivan Pavlov
was able to produce large quantities of scholarly writings on his classical condition-
ing studies. Recently, this approach has been adapted by Jeremy T. Burman and me
(Ball, 2012; Burman, 2012; Burman & Ball, 2011, 2012). A “psychological factory”
is defined as any author who is able to publish 10 or more publications for at least two
consecutive years. Using this search and selection criterion in PsycNET, we were able
to develop a list of “factories” operating in (predominately North American) psychol-
ogy. By applying this method, we are able to ask new questions of history, such as: what
is effective leadership and mentoring in psychology; and what kind of departments fos-
ter excellent publication records? This method does not look to data and statistics to
provide answers, as it would with traditional historiometric approaches to productivity
and eminence in psychology (e.g., Simonton, 2000, 2002, 2005). Rather, it uses the
data to open up new questions and new avenues of historical critique and explanation.
It therefore acts as a bridge between the quantitative and qualitative approaches.
In general, qualitative approaches to the psychology of genius pay homage to the
Carlylian tradition. While many authors who write in this style are not “hero-
worshippers,” and may even be critical in their orientation, their methods nonetheless
derive from Carlyle’s lineage.
Biography The varieties of biography make up by far the largest amount of qualitative
work produced on the psychology of genius. Frequently, popular biographies are writ-
ten about recognized geniuses (e.g., Gleick, 2003; Goldsmith, 2005; Kanigel, 1991)
to be consumed by academic and general audiences alike. However, academic authors
also produce biographies of eminent individuals and geniuses. Some are strictly tra-
ditional narratives concerning an individual or group of individuals (e.g., Dewsbury,
Benjamin, & Wertheimer, 2006; Forrest, 1974; Minton, 1988), whereas others are
used to present a historical argument (e.g., Fancher, 1985; Gould, 1996; Ruther-
ford, Vaughn-Blount, & Ball, 2010). While the former run the risk of being akin to
32. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 13
“hero-worship,” and are often deemed celebratory in nature, the latter often have a
more critical focus.
Interestingly, there are biographies of both a celebratory and critical nature that aim
to provide insight into the psychology of genius, or the study of genius. For example,
Albert (1998) used the life stories of G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan – both
mathematicians – to illustrate the differences between giftedness, talent, and genius. In
addition, Gardner (1997) has used biographies to illustrate his theory of extraordinar-
iness, featuring the lives of Mozart, Sigmund Freud, Woolf, and Mahatma Gandhi. On
the other side of the coin, Geoffrey Cantor (1996) has borrowed Michael Faraday’s
life story in order to illustrate how biographies cast scientists in the role of “hero,”
while Peter Hegarty (2007) has shown the gendered and gender-conformist nature
of Terman’s theory of genius through an exploration of Terman’s life experiences.
There is yet another variety of biography – psychobiography – that has been used to
explore the nature of genius. Psychobiography combines biographical narratives with
psychoanalysis in order to say something new about the historical subject. An excellent
example of this is Erik Erikson’s (1958) case study of Martin Luther. Raymond E.
Fancher (1983, 1998) has also written extensively on Galton’s life and work using
various psychobiographical approaches. All of these strategies come together to give
the reader a compelling and innovative look at the nature of genius, historical geniuses,
and those who study them.
Other techniques There are relatively few authors who have moved beyond biog-
raphy and psychobiography as tools to explore the psychology of genius. However,
participant interviews have been used by Nancy C. Andreasen (1987) to explore the
prevalence of mental illness among creative writers. Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmiha-
lyi (1996) interviewed eminent creators across the arts, humanities, sciences, applied
sciences, and politics in order to derive a theory of creativity and creative individ-
uals. Using a slightly different approach, Kay R. Jamison (1989) used open-ended
questionnaires in order to elucidate responses from writers and poets describing their
struggles with mental illness. In all of these cases, not every participant may have been
a “genius,” but they were certainly all eminent creators – some were even Nobel Prize
winners. These alternative strategies help present an autobiographical voice that is
rarely heard in the psychology of genius literature.
The Genius in History
Obviously, there are a wide variety of approaches to studying the psychology of genius.
But how do these methods impact our perception of geniuses? What qualities, charac-
teristics, and stories do they lead us to privilege in our scholarship? Here I will discuss
not the relationship between the genius and history, but the relationship between the
author and their eminent historical subject(s).
Writing history is a continual process of engagement and reconstruction. One his-
torian – Mary Terrall (2006) – said this of writing biographies in particular,
A biography, a written life, in some manner brings back to life someone from the past,
known to the present only through the material traces left behind, in archives, in attics,
in print. Though historians do not tend to think they are in the business of resurrection,
biographers do share something with novelists in this manner of bringing characters to
life, or back to life. (p. 306)
33. 14 Laura C. Ball
This allusion to writing fiction is intentional; Terrall argues that biographers engage
in many of the same processes as novelists and use many of the same techniques, but
unlike the novelist, their stories are bound by empirical, material evidence. And yet,
biographies (and other histories) are a form of story-telling: We choose the narrative
we put forward. But why do we choose the narratives we espouse?
Daston and Sibum (2003) have suggested that people unknowingly adopt the “per-
sona” – the explicit and implicit cultural values – of their discipline.6 The “scientific
persona” is a role or identity that a scientist implicitly strives to emulate (see also
Bordogna, 2005). Elsewhere, I have suggested that perhaps it is those individuals who
most closely emulate the values of the discipline who become recognized as geniuses
(Ball, 2012). Similarly, it is possible that biographers reconstruct their historical sub-
jects in light of these personae; “genius” has its own persona (creativity, intelligence,
madness), and biographers privilege evidence that fits with these narratives. Cantor
(1996), when writing his biography of Michael Faraday, noted that other biographers
had constructed different “Faradays” to fit the narrative they were trying to tell:
Closer inspection of the literature shows that these “Faradays” fulfilled many different
and contradictory functions. Thus, for some authors, he became the great discoverer
of nature’s secrets, while for others he was the Christian philosopher par excellence, or
the leading public lecturer, or the scientist with refined sensibilities – to mention but a
few. These portrayals of Faraday – or more exactly these “Faradays” – embody complex
cultural values and meanings. They posit the nature of science, its aims and methods, and
also the ideals for which the scientist should strive. (p. 172)
In all of these stories, however, the scientist (in this case Faraday) is cast in the role
of hero to academic and popular audiences. These narratives serve important func-
tions, including inspiration to potential and current scientists (Cantor, 1996; Hong &
Lin-Siegler, 2012; S¨oderqvist, 1996; see also earlier quote from Baldwin,
1913/2001). However, they also have an impact on how we understand the psy-
chology of genius. These biographies form an important source of information for
any methodological approach, whether quantitative or qualitative. They introduce an
important limitation on how we are able to understand the psychology of genius.
The Construal-Level Theory of psychological distance (Liberman & Trope, 2008;
Trope and Liberman, 2010) suggested yet another limitation: Perceived psychological
distance has an effect on the inferences we make. The more psychologically distant we
perceive an “Other” to be, the more likely we are to process their actions in terms
of high-level personal qualities and characteristics. For those whom we perceive to
be psychologically close to us, we tend to explain their behavior in highly situational
and contextualized terms (e.g., “I studied hard, and that’s why I got an ‘A’ on the
test”). For those that we perceive to be psychologically distant, we attribute their
behavior to stable personality factors (e.g., “she got a 100% on that exam. She must
be a genius!”). This is similar to the false attribution bias for in-groups versus out-
groups: The psychologically distant “Other” is akin to the out-group.
In the case of our eminent historical subjects, we see them as psychologically dis-
tant on at least two levels: time and behavior. Often, these individuals are not our
contemporaries in a given field, providing perceived distance over time. And there is
a perceived distance in their behaviors – they have produced extremely original, cre-
ative, and highly valued works, and their other behaviors may be erratic, reflecting a
34. The Genius in History: Historiographic Explorations 15
mental illness or substance-abuse problem. Because of this, we may see their behaviors
as more intentional, directed, and indicative of underlying motivations and psycho-
logical attributes. In essence, we see them as “performing” genius (cf. Butler, 1990).
This “performance” then becomes the focus of the historical narrative.
Recently, Simonton (2012) examined the biographies and other historical works
surrounding Galileo and his discoveries. Typically, biographers portray Galileo’s find-
ings as purposeful, the product of foresight, intuition, and unusual insight. However,
upon closer examination, Simonton found that this was not strictly speaking the case.
Galileo had successes as well as failures along the way to his discoveries, but it is his
successes that are continuously highlighted by his biographers. To the contrary, the
path to Galileo’s discoveries was not linear and purposeful. Often, he wandered the
path blind and found inspiration in his artistic endeavours. Mario Biagioli (1993) has
also written about the extent to which Galileo’s patronage networks influenced his
work. Not only did they provide him with necessary funds, but they also provided
him with scientific credibility. Much like Cantor (1996) found in his examination of
Faraday’s biographies, the traditional image of Galileo has come to represent the sci-
entific ideal of objective, independent, empirical observation. He is cast as a scientific
hero. Galileo’s failures, the inspiration he found in the arts, and his need for wealthy
patrons are often absent in his biographies.
This case study highlights the effects of psychological distance, and the scientific
persona at work in the biography of genius. Genius is constructed and reconstructed
through biographical and other historical narratives. In the process, new life and mean-
ing are given to the historical subject. This constructed representation of the genius
through biography then comes to inform other approaches to the psychological study
of genius, feeding historiometric, and psychobiographic research. In this way, the his-
torian creates the narrative upon which the psychology of genius is based, thereby
revealing the genius in history.
1 This is also true in French (see Derrida 2003/2006).
2 The choice in wording (“devout follower”) is intentional. Galton was an Anglican and a
committed member of the Church of England prior to Origin’s publication. However, after
reading Darwin’s manuscript, he suffered a crisis of faith. Fancher (2009) has argued that
Galton responded by replacing one faith and set of beliefs with another, turning to the
theory of evolution with religious fervor and devotion.
3 This reference to “variation” should not be interpreted as “genetic variation.” Baldwin is
writing in a pre-Mendelian time, and therefore without our current understanding of genes
and genetics. By “variation’, he is referring to the original Darwinian meaning: within a
niche, species vary. These variations drive natural selection. Baldwin also seems to be refer-
ring to the idea of the “normal curve,” which is rooted in Galton’s work (who drew inspi-
ration from Quetelet).
4 Especially through two publications following his work on genius where he developed an
early version of twin study methodology (Galton, 1876, 1883; see Teo & Ball, 2009).
5 Simonton and Song (2009) conducted a secondary analysis of the Miles and Wolfe (1936)
data using the same materials, gleaned from the archives at Akron and Stanford. Interest-
ingly, they found slightly different results.
6 This is akin to Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical model.
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The Psychobiography of Genius
William Todd Schultz
Psychobiography is a sometimes confusing, possibly even misleading name for a most
commonplace endeavor – the attempt to understand people through the use of psy-
chological concepts. It is what everybody does, less officially, every single day. Relying
on whatever psychological or folk-psychological knowledge we happen to possess, we
try figuring out why people do what they do, or feel what they feel, or think what
they think. It is difficult to judge, but perhaps 50% of our waking, maybe more of our
insomniac, time is spent in a mode of assessment. There is nothing exotic about it. We
do it to survive.
As a research endeavor taken up mostly by personality psychologists, psychobiogra-
phy proceeds similarly, from the same impulse, although more thoughtfully, planfully,
and explicitly. Biographical evidence is carefully and thoroughly presented; key scenes
or moments in a life are identified; theories are laid out as necessary; and some facet
of a person’s inner world is illuminated. It makes no difference whether the individual
in question is a genius, by some measure, or a person quite a bit less exalted. The goal
is to shed light on motives, emotional dynamics, relational strategies, or unconscious
gestalts of thought and feeling, on the inner, subjective origins – often obscure to cre-
ators themselves – of publicly shared products or life events. One now classic essay by
Runyan (2005), for instance, pursued the question of why Van Gogh cut off his ear. It
is prototypical. The focus is precise; the question is clear and limited; and various pos-
sible explanatory vectors are presented then rigorously critiqued. Some get discarded
as flawed or implausible or absurd (e.g., ear as phallic object), others retained.
Most typically, psychological science sets its sights on either group or universal lev-
els of explanation, the individual person a relatively rare afterthought, a presumed
sum total – somewhere far down the line – of part processes thrown in a blender. At
the group level, one might investigate hippocampal tissue densities in schizophren-
ics, or mortality salience and low tolerance for ambiguity in political conservatives;
at the universal, the effects of priming on emotion and behavior, or how the use of
personal pronouns correlates with specific aspects of self-experience. As its name sug-
gests, psychobiography works at the level of the individual. That this should be, in
whatever way, the least bit controversial is a perplexity. The history of psychology, in
some respects its grandest moments, is replete with N = 1 studies, and not around the
fringes, either. James, Jung, Freud, Watson, Piaget, Skinner, Maslow, Tomkins, Klein,
The Wiley Handbook of Genius, First Edition. Edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
40. The Psychobiography of Genius 21
Laing – the list is long – all saw excellent reason to stop, from time to time, and see
how theory works, or doesn’t, in the lives of single subjects. The impulse, in other
words, has been to include, not exclude, that particular level of analysis. One gets the
sense, in reading these writers, that doing so was perfectly natural, an obvious step.
This is what psychobiography almost uniquely contributes – it gathers up nomothetic
findings, then aims them at real, complex, lived lives. It can be, in some ways, a test.
Will these findings illuminate something actual? Will they tell us things about a per-
son we would not otherwise know? Do they reveal? Do they prove their usefulness? At
its essence, then, psychobiography is applied psychology. It is practical, single-subject
level action research.
In most instances, psychobiography would not concern itself with the mechanics or
cognitive operations of genius, what makes the thinking of a genius essentially anoma-
lous. It can do this, it can focus on “part-processes,” yet, speaking simply statistically,
that avenue is uncommon. Instead, the focus tends to be on genius’s products – their
sources in the mind, personality, and emotional life of the person in question. In that
sense, psychobiography is always about the why question – or at least almost always –
not about the how question. The focus, then, is not so much on difference as on same-
ness (or, to be clearer, a special sort of sameness rooted in individuality). What I mean
is this: Though the results of genius are astonishingly sui generis, they derive from the
same sets of needs as do the works or products of nongenuises. Diane Arbus took
pictures that recapitulated early family conflicts revolving around attachment inse-
curity (Schultz, 2011a); musician Elliott Smith wrote certain songs in order to dis-
patch feelings about a stepfather (Schultz, 2013); Truman Capote, in his final book
Answered Prayers, made use of relational strategies predisposing preemptive aban-
donment (Schultz, 2011b); Elvis Presley had an oddly difficult time performing the
song “Are You Lonesome Tonight” because it activated childhood anxieties centering
on rejection and control (Elms & Heller, 2005); Wittgenstein, in his philosophizing
about death and what can and can’t be said, drew on his own death and suicide fears,
the latter particularly demonic (Schultz, 1999). So, it isn’t as if the psychobiography
of genius unpacks categorically exotic whys. The motives behind genius’s workings are
readily recognizable. What is not as readily recognizable is the yield, what the work-
ings lead to. Again, the distinction is between process and product. The former can
be mundane – emotionally, that is – the latter uncanny. In fact, it is always interesting
how uncanniness – say, Picasso’s cubism – can erupt out of utter mundanity of motive.
On the matter of method, it’s difficult to be generic. Except in an iterative, limited
form, the familiar model of hypothesis testing is impractical if not impossible. There is
no control group. Data are filtered, scrutinized, singled out, interpreted, by way of a
process it would not do to call anything but subjective. Is psychobiography more art
than science? One’s instinct is to say yes, it is, although here again, in rarer instances,
psychobiography can be, and has been, done purely scientifically through the use of,
say, content-analytic strategies (more on that soon). Also, method can be a function of
medium. Assaying Pollock’s drip painting or Bach’s sonatas suggests approaches less
suited for an examination of Philip Larkin’s poetry. How to best go about explaining
has a lot to do with what’s being explained.
In any case, over the past 20 years or so, various attempts have been made to be help-
fully programmatic. As for working with biographical material – which always seems
to exist in exhausting superabundance – the late Irving Alexander (1990) assembled
what he calls “primary textual indicators of psychological saliency,” a set of broad
41. 22 William Todd Schultz
hints or pointers signaling emotional density or significance. These have been used
in quite a number of psychobiographical investigations; they amount to a winnowing
device, a way of reducing the signal-to-noise ratio. He includes, for instance, primacy
(what comes first in a text), frequency (simple repetitions), emphasis (the italicizing
of an event), omission (leaving facts out tendentiously), and error (making notable
mistakes in storytelling), among other possible cues. Keeping such pointers in mind
facilitates data examination; from there, one extracts patterns within events that have
been singled out, dynamics that persist and appear to be especially organizing for
McAdams (1993) took a similar approach. His recommendation was to zero in on
“nuclear episodes,” including peak experiences, nadirs (low points), turning points,
as well as earliest and key childhood, adolescent, and adult memories. One might
also, McAdams said, explore themes of agency or communion as a way of getting at
style of personality, or analyze characters in life stories – McAdams called them, after
Jung, “imagos.” Some imagos, the “warrior,” for instance, express agentic tendencies;
others, such as “the lover,” point to communion needs.
More recently Alan Elms (2007) laid out an unusually specific step-by-step guide
to psychobiographical process. He started with selection of subject, in the process
warning against “idealizing or demonizing,” and staying alert to personal biases. Next
comes data collection, ideally from “varied sources,” followed by the formulation and
revision of tentative hypotheses. “It may be worth pausing to consider [at this point],”
whether the usual Freudian suspects are at work: Oedipal feelings, oral or anal personality
traits, unconscious defenses, and so on. But there are plenty of non-Freudian possibilities
as well: Eriksonian issues of identity, intimacy, generativity; the patterns of motivation
first named by Murray and explored by McClelland, Winter, and others, such as achieve-
ment, affiliation, and power; such empirically derived constructs as authoritarianism and
Machiavellianism; personality patterns based on early attachment experiences; the basic
emotional scripts described by Tomkins and Carlson; even those five factors so popular
in recent personality assessment literature, repetitively but sometimes usefully skimming
the surface of personality rather than its depths.
After this, one returns, Elms suggests, to increasingly focused data collection, along
with the task of dealing with discrepancies across data sources. Finally, one identifies
and delimits valid conclusions, and compares these to other, potentially competing,
Whatever the mechanics of method, one often begins with a simple question – psy-
chologically promising and nonobvious. This question does not come prepackaged or
a priori. It erupts out of data, out of some initial, curiosity-driven loitering around in
the life in question. Let’s return to Elvis, for a moment, an essay by Elms and Heller
(2005). First, they discerned a trend. Elvis showed a puzzling tendency. In a large
number of performances of the song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” he sabotaged
the tune (an example of Alexander’s “error” indicator). He made off-color jokes. He
skipped lines or whole sections. He sang it alongside a mocking sidekick band member.
Certain lines on certain nights reduced him to tears. The song, it seemed, was a packed
conditioned stimulus. It elicited unexpected emotion. It got under Elvis’s skin. What,
as written, ought to have been a pained, poignant study of love loss morphed into a
42. The Psychobiography of Genius 23
burlesque. This is often the moment psychobiography begins, provoked by perplex-
ity. One faces a psychological riddle of Rumpelstiltskin-like proportions. The obvious
question is why – why did Elvis do this, why torpedo a touchy-feely love song? From
there the process unfolds exactly as Elms (2007) described – theorizing, immersion in
the life, the art; more theorizing; more immersion; then a piecemeal, back-and-forth
meaning-making geared towards illuminating the sources of the initially uncanny.
In what follows, the plan is to proceed by example, working from recent examplars. I
want to talk about method not abstractly, but by showing what has been done method-
ologically in psychobiographies I find particularly effective. For decades, psychobiog-
raphy was a marginalized endeavor within the personality science orbit. Now, it would
be harder to arrive at the same judgment. A comprehensive handbook appeared in
2005 (Schultz, 2005), replete with prescriptive and proscriptive guidelines as well as
more than a dozen analyses of lives from Plath to Bin Laden. The tired misapprehen-
sion that the enterprise is (1) inherently flawed, (2) inevitably Freudian, and (3) preter-
naturally concerned only with diagnosis has been, one hopefully surmises, rebutted
decisively. Oxford now publishes an “Inner Lives” Series, each volume a detailed psy-
chological study of a compelling historical figure. Three titles have appeared so far:
McAdams’s (2010) assessment of George W. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq;
my own psychobiographical take on Truman Capote (Schultz, 2011b), specifically his
attempt to write the roman a clef Answered Prayers; and Kasser’s (2013) investigation
of the subjective sources of John Lennon’s song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Lennon and Capote famously called themselves geniuses, itself a nervy proclamation.
Bush preferred the perhaps more manly “decider” sobriquet, and though he may seem
outlandishly out of place in a genius handbook like this one, McAdams’s way of going
about making sense of his political life most certainly is not. In any event, these three
efforts – on Bush, Lennon, and Capote – a politician, a musician, and a writer, rec-
ommend themselves as promising current how-tos. Each is laid out in subsequent
sections, with an eye towards exploring methodological and theoretical steps in the
process. In the end, assorted lessons will be presented as guides to future inquiry.
George W. Bush
In some ways, beginning here is a challenge. Political psychobiography throws down
methodological oil slicks one rarely feels a need to side-step in studies of artists, for
one inescapable reason: Most if not all politicians systematically lie. Their lives are
press releases (Wiersma, 1988). They habitually say not what they believe but what
they think, based on what advisors tell them, will work effectively politically. Art is self-
expression of the highest order. Politics may be too, but getting at patterns of emo-
tion, thought, and personality dynamics behind any one political decision requires an
above average clearing away of clotted, orchestrated subterfuge. When are politicians
most themselves? While giving a convention speech? Hardly. While delivering a state-
of-the-union address? Not really. In writing, or sort of writing, with ghostwriters, a
smokescreen autobiography? Probably not. In responding to increasingly less common
press conference questions? Possibly. The hard fact is that of all psychological subjects,
politicians are the most scripted, the most guarded. They say what polling or interest
groups suggest. They are impression-managers, confederacies of filtered sound-bites.
That said, it wouldn’t be notably silly to call political psychobiography impossible.
43. 24 William Todd Schultz
One feels tempted. The case can be made (though certain excellent researchers like
David Winter would no doubt strongly disagree).
Now and then, someone manages by chance to get in, as did Doris Kearns Good-
win for her book on Lyndon Johnson (Goodwin, 1991). But “near distance” access
like that can’t be counted on; it’s likely a thing of the past anyway. Therefore, even
though these can themselves occasionally turn problematic, the place to begin is with
what non-Nietzscheans lazily call the facts. They do exist. They might be finessed and
nuanced later (though Bush himself did not “do nuance”), but they possess an origi-
nally untrammeled character. They are what they are, and they can, with appropriate
skepticism, be known. For instance, the death of Bush’s sister, Robin; the fact that, to
a stunning degree of exactitude, he followed the path of his father; or that he stopped
drinking; or that (he says, at least) he found religion; or that, as many remarked of him
as far back as his college days, he tended to be disarmingly charming, direct, in your
face. Psychologist McAdams is, to many, the most astute personality sifter going, and
he treats these facts as portals. Psychobiography is judicious, careful, deeply thought-
through inference. The facts of a life point to destinations, like signposts on a free-
way. Or in more modern terms, the facts are a GPS system, each one suggesting a
step that suggests another, then another. At any point, one can branch off. If one
doesn’t find the path effective, one can also reroute the system. There is, moreover,
always the prospect of getting lost if attention lapses, or ending up somewhere totally
If explanation entails the application of a series of arrowed vectors, some context-
contingent, some relatively durable, impervious to context, then facts are the first
jigsaw pieces one anchors a puzzle around until, fragment by fragment, a recogniz-
able image appears. Take the “I don’t do nuance” and the “decider” details. Perhaps
Bush is lying; perhaps he does do nuance. Here, those odds are low, since others who
worked with him have weighed in to say essentially the same thing. Not doing nuance,
combined with an impatience for study, for reflection, for weighing of information,
plus a contrasting commitment to listening to the belly, trusting the gut, black and
white disambiguation – all these things McAdams seizes on as indicators of a “basic
endogenous tendency.” They signal a trait: low cognitive openness. This is McAdams’s
starting point, his first level of inquiry. He recommends it as a general principle, not
an end in itself, but a first consideration: the actor’s dispositional signature. Whatever
one thinks of Five Factor Theory – and the sharpest irritation concerns that loaded
last term’s aroma of overreach, since to many it isn’t a theory at all – traits work
to describe, and they predict a surprising range of life outcomes, some counterin-
tuitive (Soldz & Vaillant, 1999). They are a sort of superstructural machinery, five
latent spinning wheels propelling and braking. McAdams suggests using what you can
of what they have to offer while also alertly attending to out-of-character incidents,
moments of anomalousness. Doing this, he comes to conclude that Bush is high E
(extraversion) and low O (openness). Thus, the decider’s decision to invade Iraq was,
in trait terms, a fait accompli: “Extraversion supplied the necessary optimism and the
relentless cheerleading that helped to sustain commitment to the choices made; low
openness to experience brooked no uncertainties in the decision’s wake, no doubts”
(McAdams, 2010, p. 44). It is not the whole story; traits are never the whole story.
But it’s an element, one fraction of a larger convergence of reasons. So, don’t overrate
traits, but don’t discount them either. In psychobiography, they are a conversation
44. The Psychobiography of Genius 25
McAdams’s next level of analysis is “characteristic adaptations,” the ways in which
traits express themselves. Here the question is what traits make one do in context, how
they preset parameters on actions. Traits are not patterns of behavior; nor are they
the “plans, skills, and desires that lead to patterns of behavior.” They aren’t publicly
observable; they aren’t available to “private introspection” (see McCrae & Costa,
2008, p. 163). Those more visible components of personality – attitudes, roles, rela-
tionships, defenses – are habitual (reflecting an enduring core) and responsive (a reac-
tion to ever-changing social environments). Traits, being invisible, are thus inferred
from characteristic adaptations. And while it may smack of obfuscation to uncouple
the two concepts, that is what McCrae and Costa (2008) did. Practically speaking, the
psychobiographer works with characteristic adaptations; traits are off-stage voices.
A political position is a characteristic adaptation; Bush’s drinking is another, suggest-
ing a trait on which McAdams does not dwell, neuroticism (Soldz & Vaillant, 1999).
It’s always helpful to zero in on moments of intersection. One McAdams explores
concerns the death of Bush’s sister. At first he was spared information about the dire-
ness of Robin’s situation. When at last she died, a crushing development for which he
was not prepared at all, he adapted characteristically. Driven by the motor of extraver-
sion, he turned, immaturely but understandably, to the comic mode. His focus was on
treating his mother’s grief. He joked, he clowned, he distracted, he played the fool –
whatever he could think of to alter his mother’s emotional state. Extraversion’s core
is positive affect, high hedonic capacity. Bush marshaled that core; it is what he knew;
it is what came naturally. Let loose, this same clowning was overwhelmingly evident
in Bush’s college years. It also surfaced during his Presidency. Habitually – and that is
what characteristic adaptations are, habits – he reverted to jester fool even on occasions
calling for solemnity. A reporter might ask him a loaded, serious question. He’d reply
with a joke about the reporter’s tie. Habits are patterns, psychologically driven, with
roots in needs tied to basic endogenous tendencies. When affect became unpleasantly
hot, Bush goofed off. Sometimes charismatically and winningly, sometimes bizarrely
and pathetically, he undercut negative emotion, stopped it in its tracks. Even when
he got “serious” – stern, authoritative, blunt – the sense was that this was an alien
mode. Clowning required no effort; seriousness did. (Therefore, he always seemed to
be faking seriousness.)
Relational strategies fit here, too; they also evolve. As research on attachment shows,
security or insecurity around others correlates predictably with “Big Five” dimensions
(Noftle & Shaver, 2006). The key relationship in Bush’s (W’s) life was with his father,
George HW. McAdams summed up the details. HW went to Andover and Yale, and
was a member of the DKE frat and of secret society Skull and Bones; ditto for W. HW
was a fighter pilot; ditto for W. HW taught Sunday School; ditto for W. HW was a
baseball star; W became part owner of the Texas Rangers, printing out baseball cards
vaingloriously of himself. HW made it big in oil; W tried that, too. At 20, HW pro-
posed to a Smith girl; at 20, W proposed to a Smith girl. And of course, like HW, W was
elected President and, exactly like dad did, went after unutterably barbaric sadist Sad-
dam Hussein (see McAdams, 2010, p. 72). It’s one thing to admire and respect your
father. It’s another to try being your father. The former seems healthy and expectable;
the latter outstandingly odd. The question is: What does this mean psychologically?
Descriptively, when it came to key moments in the pursuit of identity – choosing a
college, a mate, a career – Bush took the path more traveled, the one his father made
by walking. In this instance, then, zeroing in on a relationship, a key one, exposes a
45. 26 William Todd Schultz
sort of ontological insecurity. As McAdams explained, up until around age 40, Bush
had scant idea who he was. He did two things, then: he became who someone else
was, and he drank a lot. Here one can speculate again about interactions between lev-
els of personality. We know from research that neuroticism (N) correlates with alcohol
abuse. “Self-consciousness” is another N facet, as is “anxiety.” These may plausibly be
seen as driving a characteristic adaptation (level two) leading to identity foreclosure:
When in doubt, be dad. In other words, relatively high N led to a practical solution
relating to problems of self-formation. For McAdams, no single level – traits, charac-
teristic adaptations – is sufficient unto itself. Using his model to size up a life requires
a constant systems mindset: Facts at one level call for adaptations at another, and
because of how the brain is organized modularly, how it automatically interprets, any
densely determined episode gets cloaked in narrative. In the end, we tell a story to
ourselves and others to make sense of what we just did. We narrate our characteristic
It is usually at the level of stories, the unconsciously motivated construction of
what Tomkins called scripts, stimulus–affect–response sequences, that personality finds
artistic unity. Scripts package life episodes into mini theories of self; they perform an
ordering function. Bush was perfectly constituted to decide on invading Iraq: high
E supplied the confidence, the enthusiasm, the energy, the impulsiveness, low O the
disinclination to carefully weigh alternatives. The father issue, too, required attending
to. He had matched dad in becoming President; now there was the possibility of at
last outdoing him, finishing what HW never did. As for the story element, what Bush
wound up scripting was a combination of God and Norman Rockwell, atonement and
recovery. All people want freedom; all people want liberty – we know because God
said so. And there is only one God, the God of Texas. Any other is fraudulent, a delu-
sion. Onto this liberation motif Bush superimposed a nostalgic memory of Utopia, his
“West Texas version of a New Jerusalem” – Midland, the town in which he grew up.
A place, McAdams says, where children play and adults work, where neighbors look
out for each other, where authority is benevolent, where souls are pure and freedom
rings. Bush had redeemed himself – he found God, he gave up drinking. Now, at his
life story’s urging, he would redeem Iraq, make it into a Midland. This, after all, was
God’s will, and Bush was only an instrument. “The only acceptable plot,” McAdams
writes, “for America’s story was the same plot that characterized [Bush’s]: the recov-
ery of goodness, security, and freedom. The only acceptable ending was America’s
victory, as God’s liberating champion.”
McAdams’s approach is conceptual. He spreads an organizing, a priori structure over
Bush’s life – person as actor (dispositional traits), person as motivated agent altering
the environment (characteristic adaptations), person as author (story maker) – and
sizes Bush up according to these three levels of personality organization. It’s one pos-
sible approach, and in McAdams’s hands it works. Tim Kasser takes a different tack in
his study of John Lennon (Kasser, 2013). Just like McAdams, he begins with a specific
question: Why did Lennon write “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”? But he postpones
detailed examination of the biography, and starts with the song as a decontextualized
object. He treats the song as data.
46. The Psychobiography of Genius 27
First, Kasser runs “Lucy” through Pennebaker’s Linguistic Inquiry Word Count
(LIWC) program, a content-analytic tool that codes text according to a number of
theory-neutral preset categories. That alone can’t accomplish much, as Kasser realizes;
there’s a need for comparison groups. So, he also includes prior Lennon songs written
around the same time, as well as a set of #1 songs by different artists – all released in the
same year. In some ways, it turns out, “Lucy” isn’t very different from the comparables;
in other ways, it is. There is, for instance, more distancing in “Lucy” (the song’s in
second-person), less overall emotion (“everyone smiles,” but apart from that, no other
emotion words appear). The profile resembles the kind one meets with in a person who
is lying. Kasser notes these facts, but sets aside the question of why.
Next Kasser extracts a script from the song, using Silvan Tomkins’s model, and
checks for reliability by asking another, blind researcher to do the same. In essence, the
scripts match, each describing an effort to connect with an awesome, exalted female
figure who is unreachable – the titular Lucy. Kasser discovers a strikingly similar script
at work in Lennon’s first two songs (Alexander’s primacy cue, recommending a focus
on “firsts”). There’s a pattern, always key in psychobiography. Girls tend to materi-
alize, they tantalize and beckon, all while remaining essentially elusive. Again, Kasser
does not yet interpret. He establishes a pattern, then moves on.
Maybe most impressively of all, Kasser performs a word association analysis of the
tune, operating under the assumption of spreading activation. He looks for occur-
rences of every “Lucy” word in every prior Lennon composition; finding them, he
analyzes context of usage, the meaning in which each word seems to be embedded.
What he finds are several clusters of categories, intertwined ideas: separation, sadness,
and death; ambivalent feelings about interpersonal relationships; and hiding of one’s
feelings and of self.
Then, finally, since the song is a song after all, Kasser identifies its eight core musi-
cal features, finding that these most closely match two prior songs Lennon called his
“truest”: “Help” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The first is a declaration of inse-
curity and lostness, the second a psychedelic homage.
What’s notable about Kasser’s method is its quality of largely neutral investigation,
its admirably multimethodological character. He minimizes or eliminates potential
biases by working with data and seeing what the data reveal. To a degree, he removes
himself from the discovery process. He does not start with the life or with any sort
of theory or conceptual superstructure. He starts instead with the phenomenon, the
song, then cautiously, incrementally teases out a number of basic features he compares
with previous Lennon tunes. Elms and Heller (2005) do the same with Elvis and his
song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The goal, initially, is descriptive. They explore the
song’s history; they analyze a number of Elvis’s intermittently bizarre performances
of the song; they examine how its themes resurface in a number of earlier Elvis tunes;
then they explore the circumstances surrounding Elvis’s baseline recording. A mistake
psychobiographers sometimes make is frontloading theory. Essentially, they lay out
what they believe then show how the phenomenon fits. This is, most of the time, a
strategic error at best. Conclusions emerge as tendentious fait accomplis. It’s usually
far better to do as Kasser and Elms and Heller do: present the phenomenon. Dissect it
as phenomenon, describe it fully and richly. Contextualize it. Foreground it. In other
words, postpone interpretation. Do not rush.
So, for Kasser, more than the first half of the book is a meditation on the inner life
of the song; the song is the person. It almost seems to lack an author. As I said before,
47. 28 William Todd Schultz
“Lucy” is treated like a found object, some shiny glass bibelot that rolled in with the
tide, obscure, mysterious, of uncertain origin. Then, that accomplished, Lennon him-
self enters the picture. His early life of abandonment; his move, made necessary by
his parents’ unsuitability as parents, to the home of his Aunt Mimi, who raised him;
and then, just as he was beginning to reestablish contact, the death of his mother
Julia, who was struck by an off-duty policeman as she crossed a busy road. She died
instantly. Lennon was waiting for her at her home. Police delivered the ghastly news.
In “Julia,” a song Lennon wrote a year after “Lucy”, he begins with the line, a small
bit of self-analysis – “Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you,
Julia.” Kasser finds this judgment essentially true. Lucy is, in large part, Julia, the
unreachable female muse who appears then disappears, who is simultaneously there
and not there. Now, under more ordinary circumstances, the finding that Lucy is
Julia – more than Julia, of course, but mainly her – might seem suspiciously trite,
half-baked, uber-Freudian. But because Kasser worked to this conclusion so organ-
ically, so open-mindedly, starting from scratch and building in layered increments,
it comes across as anything but, as virtually inevitable. This is one mark of a satisfy-
ing, effective, well-constructed psychobiography: its interpretations arrive like forgone
Bush never claimed to be a genius. In fact, he more often claimed – jokingly, one
supposes – the opposite (as did countless others). Lennon did; he did call himself
a genius. So did Capote, and in Capote’s case, the proclamation was vouchsafed by
science. As a kid, he took an IQ test – because his family thought he was “subnormal” –
and scored off the charts (or so he said).
McAdams begins with dispositional traits, Kasser with the song itself. In my book
on Capote (Schultz, 2011b), I start with what McAdams terms level three: stories.
There is always a question of the jumping-off point in psychobiography. Again, it is
difficult to offer formulaic advice on where, how, or even when to start. My instinct
is to let the life decide. Capote was, with Wildean flourish, a storyteller.
Stories are affect-laden scenes, and scenes contain scripts – sets of rules for ordering,
interpreting, and predicting families of discrete happenings. One fact about Capote
that presents, temporarily, a degree of challenge is that when he told tales about his
life, truth took a back seat to artistry. What really happened carried far less weight than
what could have or should have. So what to do? Discount what Capote said? Set it
aside in search of the facts? Devalue it? No. Fact or fiction, stories are psychologically
real. All memory is construction. The question has less to do with veridicality than with
framing. In this instance, repetition also plays a role. Capote told the same stories over
and over. That fact suggests urgency, what Alexander, in his textual indicators, refers
to as frequency. Specifically, Alexander advises paying close attention to episodes that
tend to recur, the assumption being that repetition suggests conflict and a degree of
emotional unfinishedness. We keep narrating scenes that are problematic; the narration
is a way of making sense.
Capote, it turns out, told four stories over and over again. That he did so is not an
accident; it isn’t arbitrary. It’s motivated. They were his “go to” leitmotifs whenever
he felt a need to sum up who he was. All were “factions,” combined fact and fiction; all
48. The Psychobiography of Genius 29
were subjectively italicized. One concerns being locked in a hotel room at age 2 as his
parents partied the night away; another features Capote as a child plaintively watching
his mother drive off in a big Buick kicking up dust. In Tomkins’s script model, scenes
are the primary unit of analysis. They package affect. But what they mean on their own
amounts to less than what they mean as crystallized scripts. The goal, in other words,
is script extraction, finding plots of self embedded in self-described happenings like the
hotel room lock-in. These first two stories describe what might be called, casually, an
“ouch” script, or what McAdams terms a contamination sequence. Something possibly
good turns bad, and the outcome is negative emotion. Core (in the sense of repetitive)
stories imply core (in the sense of life governing and organizing) scripts.
Capote told two more stories with equal frequency – the IQ test tale (he aced the
instrument twice, to the shock of all involved) and a story about a story, “Mrs. Busy-
body,” he wrote at age 8 – or so he claims, likely hyperbolically – that pillories a gossipy
neighbor and provokes outrage and scandal in Monroeville, Alabama, where Capote
grew up, raised by aunts. As they always potentially do, these scenes capture another
script, one I call “table-turning.” Capote is underestimated, devalued, dismissed, then
proves all doubters wrong. Doubt me at your peril, the stories seem to say.
The theme of Capote’s life was abandonment; he lived, as he said, in constant fear
of losing love. His father disappeared. His mother did, too, then came back intermit-
tently only to leave yet again. Capote’s attachment style was insecure. The “ouch”
script encoded that fact. It put him on red alert; it predicted love loss. And as scripts are
often self-validating, love loss is what he got, again and again. But he also made use of
what Mikulincer, Shaver, and Pereg (2003) call deactivating adult attachment-related
strategies. He liked to present himself as emotionally bullet-proof. He pretended not
to care what people thought. He denied feeling. He bragged that he could not be
hurt. This style – more avoidant than anxious – is what the “table-turning” script
encapsulates. Belittle him, threaten him, question his power, and he comes at you
like a barracuda. In fact, he abandons preemptively, as if relationships mean nothing
To be expected, all these dynamics partially determined the content of Capote’s fic-
tion. His first stories were often about unreachable, crazy, and crazy-making females
who tormented their pursuers. His first novel – Other Voices, Other Rooms – featured
a boy’s search for a lost father who never quite turns up, at least not as anticipated. In
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly teases then disappears forever. Her real name is
Lulumae; Capote’s mother’s name was Lillie Mae. In In Cold Blood, Capote falls mis-
erably in love with a killer, Perry Smith, sure to abandon him, in this case with terrible
finality – the “ouch” script par excellence. Then, finally, in his mysteriously unfin-
ished final work, Answered Prayers, Capote sauteed the jet set “swans” – rich women
like C. Z. Guest and Gloria Vanderbilt – with whom he had become quite close. He
tattled on trillionaires whose stories he had been hoarding, whose confidences he’d
artfully extracted. When excerpts appeared, Capote was instantly blacklisted. A cur-
tain fell. No one spoke to him; his calls went unanswered and unreturned. The rich
had treated Capote like a mantelpiece object. He was their pocket Merlin – funny,
droll, richly amusing. In short, they underestimated him. They saw him as less than
who he was, a powerful writer. So, according to the “table-turning” script, he made
them pay. It was “Mrs. Busybody” redux, this time on a grander scale. He rejected the
rejecters. But what he got, in the end, was more “ouch.” He died alone and addicted,
a subintentioned suicide.
49. 30 William Todd Schultz
Now, it is possible, with these three exemplars in mind, to explore commonalities as a
way of getting at aspects of method, what to do and what not to do in psychobiogra-
phies of genius. At minimum, the following details emerge:
1 An absence of diagnosis. A lot of bad psychobiography reduces to a search for dis-
order, a sort of mindless pinning the tail on the donkey. That approach is never
satisfactory. It’s specious, a way of not understanding. Diagnoses are labels; labels
are descriptions. They are not, and cannot be, explanations. Using labels as expla-
nations, then, can’t be anything but tautology. This is an obvious point, but it’s
routinely missed. Though it might sometimes seem otherwise, psychobiography is
not diagnosis-hunting. Or when it is, it’s bad – shallow, misguided, unilluminating.
2 An absence of reductionism. In all the above examples, the thing to be explained
is approached as a product of converging vectors, each contributing a fractional
amount of explanatory power to the overall variance. No single cause is sought
or found. We don’t do anything for one reason. (I’m not writing this chapter for
one reason; you aren’t reading it for one reason.) Bush did not decide to invade
Iraq because of traits or his father or his memories of bucolic, pristine Midland.
He did it for all those reasons combined, plus a host of transpersonal considera-
tions, as McAdams makes plain. Lennon did not write “Lucy” because he had lost
his mother Julia. The song was also inspired by Lewis Carroll and by a drawing
given to Lennon by his son Julian, Kasser explains. Plus, LSD was in the air. For
a time, Lennon was taking it almost daily. The song is therefore part of an acid
zeitgeist. Kasser’s LIWC analysis revealed lyrical features that seemed to suggest
altered states of consciousness, such as a preoccupation with space and time. Needs
are always symphonic. They blend to create a sound that is action. Freud called this
overdetermination, the idea that multiple reasons interact to produce an outcome.
Reductionism’s antidote is overdetermination. It is an operating principle to keep
firmly in mind at all times. It is reality.
3 The use of personality science. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a Jun-
gian, Kohutian, or Kleinian psychobiography. They aren’t uncommon. They can
be disappointing; they can be enlightening. But the concepts – of, say, archetypes
or the death instinct – do not often possess plain scientific credibility. They have
not been scientifically validated. That is not to say they aren’t true – they may be –
but they lack experimental confirmation. Traits, redemption and contamination
sequences, attachment styles, adult attachment-related strategies, even scripts – all
these notions have been the subject of sometimes incredibly impressive empirical
investigation. The fact is, a psychobiography is only as sound as the ideas on which
it relies. If the ideas are suspect, the psychobiography is suspect. It comes down
to theory choice. Don’t use concepts whose validity is easily contestable or, worse,
4 Serious consideration of alternative interpretations. McAdams entertains possible
Freudian angles on Bush’s father complex but finds them “bogus” (in this instance,
I disagree). Kasser outlines a handful of prior attempts to make sense of Lucy, and
discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each in turn. At the conclusion of their
Elvis essay, Elms and Heller (2005) summarize three alternate scenarios. Each is
50. The Psychobiography of Genius 31
shown to be less than persuasive. Psychological analyses of genius don’t happen in
a vacuum. Surrounding major figures one always encounters a climate of opinion.
It’s best not to behave as if that opinion does not exist. It’s better yet to show how
new opinions bestow advantages old ones do not.
5 Taking the long view. Childhood is key in any life. Its importance can’t be denied.
Attachment research makes that fact indisputable. It’s a settled issue. But child-
hood isn’t everything. Strategies evolve and refine themselves. Turning points do
seem to occur. Adulthood ushers in new conflicts, new goals, different sorts of
challenges. Psychobiography is a lifespan enterprise. The books on Bush, Lennon,
and Capote analyze childhood feelings and behaviors, but they do not stop there.
They track continuities and discontinuities. For instance, Bush gave up drinking
around age 40. This was a major moment. Lennon met Yoko. That, too, was a
major moment. Lives unfold in chapters. Each deserves attention.
6 Adopting a multimethodological and multitheoretical stance. No single theory
ever quite suffices, in my view. Lives are combinations of processes and motives.
In a strange way, psychobiography performs a sort of unblending – isolating
components, then slowly recombining. Stepping back and looking closely at the
three long-form studies summarized above, it’s striking how much psychological
research is made use of: script theory; attachment theory; Five Factor Theory; the
life-story model; redemption sequences; the LIWC; word association; the spread-
ing activation model.
In psychobiography, these six tips are essential to follow. They make for a mini-
mum standard, as do excellent overviews of aspects of psychobiographical method-
ology explored by Anderson (2005), Elms (2005), McAdams (2005), and Runyan
(2005). Are they enough? Probably not. At root, psychobiography is an interpretive
practice. It requires, more than broad guidelines, perceptiveness, creativity, the ability
to see connections, the capacity for insight, and, prior to any of these, the ingenuity
to ask the right questions, the ones others overlooked or saw, wrongly, as unpromis-
ing. Life begins in mystery and ends in ambiguity. It’s messy; it’s blurry; there are no
definitive answers. That may be the final lesson. You never really know for sure. Truth
is direction, not destination.
Alexander, I. (1990). Personology: Method and content in personality assessment and psychobiog-
raphy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Anderson, J. (2005). The psychobiographical study of psychologists. In W. T. Schultz (Ed.),
Handbook of psychobiography (pp. 203–209). New York, NY: Oxford.
Elms, A. C. (2005). If the glove fits: The art of theoretical choice in psychobiography. In W. T.
Schultz (Ed.), Handbook of psychobiography (pp. 84–95). New York, NY: Oxford.
Elms, A. C. (2007). Psychobiography and case study methods. In R. Robins, R. C. Fraley, & R.
F. Krueger (Eds.), The handbook of research methods in personality psychology (pp. 97–113).
New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Elms, A. C., & Heller, B. (2005). Twelve ways to say “lonesome”: Assessing error and control
in the music of Elvis Presley. In W.T. Schultz (Ed.), Handbook of psychobiography (pp. 142–
157). New York, NY: Oxford.
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Goodwin, D. K. (1991). Lyndon Johnson and the American dream. New York, NY: St Martin’s
Kasser, T. (2013). Lucy in the mind of Lennon. New York, NY: Oxford.
McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by. New York, NY: Morrow.
McAdams, D. P. (2005). What psychobiographers might learn from personality psychology. In
W. T. Schultz (Ed.), Handbook of psychobiography (pp. 64–83). New York, NY: Oxford.
McAdams, D. P. (2010). George W. Bush and the redemptive dream: A psychological portrait.
New York, NY: Oxford.
McCrae, R., & Costa, P. (2008). A five-factor theory of personality. In O. John, R. Robins, &
L. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality (pp. 159–181). New York, NY: Guilford.
Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Pereg, D. (2003). Attachment theory and affect regulation:
The dynamics, development, and cognitive consequences of attachment-related strategies.
Motivation and Emotion, 27, 77–102.
Noftle, E., & Shaver, P. (2006). Attachment dimensions and the Big Five personality traits:
Associations and comparative ability to predict relationship success. Journal of Research in
Personality, 40, 179–208.
Runyan, W. (2005). How to critically evaluate alternative explanations of life events: The case
of Van Gogh’s ear. In W. T. Schultz (Ed.), Handbook of psychobiography (pp. 96–103). New
York, NY: Oxford.
Schultz, W. T. (1999). The riddle that doesn’t exist: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s transmogrification
of death. Psychoanalytic Review, 86, 1–23.
Schultz, W. T. (2005). Handbook of psychobiography. New York, NY: Oxford.
Schultz, W. T. (2011a). An emergency in slow motion: The inner life of Diane Arbus. New York,
Schultz, W. T. (2011b). Tiny terror: Why Truman Capote (almost) wrote Answered Prayers. New
York, NY: Oxford.
Schultz, W. T. (2013). Torment saint: The life of Elliott Smith. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Soldz, S., & Vaillant, G. (1999). The big five personality traits and the life course: A 45-year
longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 208–232.
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Journal of Personality, 56, 205–238.
Interviewing Highly Eminent
Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
Interviewing eminent creative individuals is an endeavor that sits at the intersection of
three areas of work: creativity research, which spans multiple topics studied via diverse
approaches; the study of eminence, which includes but is not limited to the realm of
creativity; and interview research, one form of qualitative inquiry. Their intersection
defines a relatively small space in terms of past research. Within psychology, for exam-
ple, the dominant research paradigm has been the quantitative rather than qualitative
study of normative rather than extraordinary phenomena. More to the point in the
context of this volume, most creativity researchers likely can name only one or two
interview studies of eminent creators.
A search of the literature yielded no prior review of research based on interview-
ing eminent creative individuals. The main goals of the present chapter therefore are
three: to consider why some researchers have elected to work at this intersection point;
to consider what has been learned there; and to discuss the practices specific to con-
ducting this work. The intention is that at the end of the expedition around this fairly
small space the reader will be equipped to decide if this kind of work is receiving all the
cultivation it is due or if instead it is a fertile field whose relative neglect has limited
scientific understanding; and in either case, will know how others go about pursu-
ing such research. With these aims in mind, the chapter reviews the existing literature
on, and informing, the intersection of the three areas and draws on insights provided
by scholars who have conducted interview research with eminent creators. A systems
model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988) provides an organizing framework.
Given the chapter’s focus on eminent creativity, in which what counts as creative is
defined by the judgment of experts and must transform a cultural domain, a systems
rather than individual-level framework will best assist in organizing the discussion. The
chapter thus adopts Csikszentmihalyi’s (1988, 1996) cultural-evolutionary model in
order to systematize the overview of research methods and results in the pages that fol-
low. The model organizes the aspects of eminent creativity that have received research
attention in the past, and identifies those that have not. Briefly, the systems model of
eminent or big-C creativity depicts the sets of bidirectional interactions among (1)
the cultural domain enabling and transformed by creative accomplishments, (2) the
individual who draws on and contributes to the domain, and (3) the social field that
elicits and judges an individual’s work and is defined by and shapes the domain. Each
The Wiley Handbook of Genius, First Edition. Edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
53. 34 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
of the three elements is embedded in a corresponding larger system – the domain
within the culture more broadly; the individual cum creator within the total person
and their biography and life circumstances; and the field within the social organiza-
tion as a whole. Each element – domain, person, field, and the larger systems in which
these are embedded – changes over time. The model is evolutionary in the sense that
the domain is viewed as an evolving entity, and the field is viewed as a selective mecha-
nism leading to retaining and perpetuating some of the works that individuals produce
and rejecting others. Superficially, it may seem incongruous to adopt a systems model
in a chapter about interviewing eminent creators; a model of the individual might
seem more appropriate. However, in theory eminent creators are privileged infor-
mants about the domain and field with which they have interacted, as well as about
their own intrapsychic processes, interpersonal processes in the case of collaborative
creativity, and individual histories.
Why Interview Eminent Creators?
A logical starting point is to ask why researchers conduct interview studies of eminent
creators. The barriers – first and foremost, access – are obvious. The question is what is
to be gained by imposing this significant time request on busy individuals rather than
consulting the public record – which for this population is substantial – or proposing
a form of data collection that asks less of the eminent creator?
The literature on this topic proved minimal, prompting us to consult the general
literature on interview methods and contact scholars who have successfully conducted
interview studies of eminent creators. The 16 scholars who generously responded
to our inquiry about their motivations and experiences (primarily via email, an
irony some commented upon) included researchers from the United States and four
other countries. Among them were many of the living researchers who have con-
ducted the highest-impact studies of creativity employing interview methods either
alone or along with other (e.g., archival or observational) research methods. Their
interviewees include Nobel laureates and other members of the so-called ultra-elite
(Zuckerman, 1972) in the domains of creativity studied. Their approaches include the
standard semistructured research interview, phenomenological interviewing, and clin-
ical interviewing. The forms of data analysis they have conducted include traditional
coding and thematic analysis, phenomenological analysis, and hermeneutics (interpre-
Before turning to the study of creativity, consider why interview methods are used in
the social and human sciences more generally and what forms they take. The method-
ological choice puzzles many, in part because of the privileging of standardized stim-
uli (e.g., psychological tests), yielding exclusively quantitative data, in the social sci-
ences. An analysis of the objections to interview research, and the entailed issues in
the philosophy of method, lies beyond the scope of this chapter (for one discussion,
see Kvale, 1994). Suffice it to say critics frequently advance objections that are not
specific to interview research, as well as concerns that are legitimate yet often tightly
bound up with the distinctive strengths of interviews. These latter strengths promi-
nently include (1) access to the interviewee’s subjectivity in a way that makes possible
fuller, more holistic accounts of personal meaning and experience (subject to criti-
cism as nonobjective); (2) interpersonal interaction, which enables clarification and
54. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 35
coconstruction by interviewer and interviewee (sometimes rejected as biased); and
(3) direct contact, which allows the establishment of the rapport on which honest and
open disclosure depends (sometimes perceived as unscientific); interviews may also be
conducted because methods such as standardized tests would discourage participation
(Crano & Brewer, 2002; King, 2004; Weiss, 1994). Two other potentially significant
but less often mentioned reasons for adopting the interview method are construction
of a more complete understanding through the integration of multiple individuals’
viewpoints (Weiss, 1994) and access to the manner in which information is conveyed
and to what is left unsaid (King, 2004).
The 16 creativity researchers whom we consulted echoed these points and amplified
them in ways that shed light on the reasons anyone tackles this strenuous method
specifically to study eminent creators. Their reasons can be organized into three sets
that cross-cut the strengths identified in the general literature. All arise from the face-
to-face and interactive nature of semistructured, qualitative research interviews: (1)
effects of interactivity on the researcher; (2) effects of interactivity on the interviewee;
and (3) effects of interactivity on what can be learned.
First, those we consulted noted that interviewing tends to fuel the researcher’s
engagement, interest, and seriousness and it gives control to the researcher while
at the same time imposing a useful control upon the researcher. On the one hand,
the researcher gains a level of control over the topics covered and the consistency
with which they are covered that is not possible when working only with preexisting
data, whether biographies, autobiographies, archival interviews, or the creators’ work-
related materials (e.g., notebooks). In addition, as many informants pointed out, the
researcher can guide, clarify, probe, add new questions, and follow up in a way that
questionnaires do not allow. At the same time, the interaction exerts a control over
the researcher. Creativity researchers may enter the interview harboring folk notions
about the creative person/process or romantic myths about the creative life, as well
as their own hypotheses. The interview exchange with the eminent creator may con-
front the researcher (sometimes insistently) with responses that prevent jumping to
conclusions or drawing overly simple conclusions.
Second, and related to the last point, the method gives the creative individual, not
only the interviewer, control. The interviewee can introduce, clarify, and reject ideas.
Our expert informants valued interviewing as the method most able to illuminate the
emic perspective, that is, the individual creator’s subjective experience (critical to phe-
nomenological research on creative process). They also described it as the method
most supportive of the research alliance that is required if the interviewee is to decide
to disclose sensitive personal information (critical to research on, e.g., creativity and
mental illness or the interpersonal context of creativity). Informants also noted that
eminent creators may be a population particularly likely to reject alternative meth-
ods, finding standardized questionnaires distasteful and distrusting psychological tests.
Eminent individuals in general may appreciate that the flexibility afforded by the inter-
view method allows the researcher to make optimal use of the interviewee’s time.
Third, the in-depth, face-to-face, dialogical, interactive character of semistructured
interviews means that they yield knowledge other methods cannot or typically do not.
This can be especially important in studying eminent creativity. Interviews are rooted
in human contact and exchange, the direction taken by the interview can be allowed to
evolve, and knowledge can emerge organically. In some interview traditions, knowl-
edge is understood as coconstructed.
55. 36 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
One very often mentioned impact on the kind of knowledge gained is enhanced
depth of understanding. Many informants stressed that interviews yield richness, tex-
ture, and nuance. Details can be filled in. A fuller story can be told; a more complete
picture can be painted.
Another consequence is to enable discovery. The interview method is closely asso-
ciated with grounded theory and with the exploratory phases of research, allowing
attentive researchers to learn more than they know to ask a priori. Interviews help
the researcher discover how best to ask about a topic; Howard Gardner eloquently
described for us the gratification of identifying the “Rosetta Stone questions” that
will elicit telling responses on a research topic. Interviews may also reveal unexpected
patterns, surface inconsistencies that can be probed, and suggest hypotheses that can
be followed up. In mixed-methods research, they yield research ideas to test experi-
mentally, they make it possible to dig more deeply into the meaning of quantitative
results, they may clarify anomalies in quantitative data, and they can provide a basis
for developing standardized measures.
One more effect is to yield data about individuality. Unusual or unique features
of the individual may be captured and clarified by interviews. Relatedly, informants
noted that the face-to-face nature of interviews means that the researcher is con-
fronted with the whole person, rather than a variable or a construct. Researchers are
exposed to the interviewees’ physicality and to expressive data such as their emotions
and modes of relating. The researcher may learn from these additional sources of data
(cf. King, 2005).
Informants’ comments suggested that by providing rich knowledge, opportunity
for discovery, and data about individuality, interview methods may hold special value
for some research on eminent creativity. There is a well-established tradition of inten-
sively studying individual creators (e.g., Gardner, 1993; Gruber, 1974). In addition,
the ultra-elite members of a domain may be few, making survey methods less useful.
With respect to the person in the systems model, some researchers suggested that emi-
nent creators have keen insight into their own strengths and weaknesses as creators as
well as their goals and practices. The issues concerning retrospective reconstruction of
formative influences are well known; however, eminent creativity is rare and hard to
predict, making prospective longitudinal research (the gold standard in the study of
developmental processes) difficult. With respect to person–domain interactions, some
researchers noted the creative process is exceptionally complex and often extends over
long periods of time, rendering other methods hard to use. Informants also noted the
distinctive value of the interview method when studying the sociocultural context and
conditions of eminent creativity. From the systems perspective, they mentioned the
field as well as collaborators and broad societal and cultural conditions. When these
topics are sensitive (e.g., interpersonal tensions, an unreceptive or hostile field, politi-
cal repression), the research alliance possible in interviews, discussed earlier, becomes
Stepping back, the informants represented a continuum of sympathetic perspec-
tives on the use of interview methods, from a human-science view that interview-
ing is the clear method of choice to the view that it is one tool in a toolkit when
studying eminent creativity, and the research question will determine whether inter-
viewing or some other method is preferred. Some acknowledged the familiar limita-
tions of the method. A few indicated that their personal strengths and dispositions
incline them toward the interview method and questions it is suited to addressing. As
56. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 37
noted above and returned to later, a number of researchers advocated combining inter-
views with other approaches, using mixed methods in traditional and/or innovative
ways. Finally, while we have adopted the strategy of seeking a range of expert per-
spectives and pooling the informants’ comments here, we underline that this is not a
Interview Research on Eminent Creators and Its Place in the
Study of Creativity
Given the multiple reasons to conduct interview studies of eminent creators, it makes
sense to begin a review of interview-based research by examining its overall place
within the study of creativity. Some past analyses of trends in creativity research
have examined the relative number of quantitative versus qualitative publications. For
instance, Wehner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Magyari-Beck (1991) looked across multiple
disciplines and analyzed U.S. doctoral studies of creativity that were included in Dis-
sertation Abstracts in 1986. They contended that dissertations more than other works
indicate the future direction of a domain. Inclusion was based on a title/keyword
search for creativity and its synonyms. Among the empirical dissertations they exam-
ined, they classified 61% as qualitative and 39% as quantitative. It is important to note,
however, that qualitative research and interview research are not coterminous. Partic-
ularly looking across disciplines, creativity researchers have employed a wide range of
qualitative research methods. Thus, this analysis does not directly address the incidence
of interview studies. When Feist and Runco (1993) analyzed a sample of 311 articles
published in the Journal of Creative Behavior from that journal’s founding in 1967
through the year 1989, they coded the specific methods used in empirical studies. They
reported that nonempirical articles outnumbered empirical ones 3 to 1, and interview
studies were less common than test, multimethod, or questionnaire studies. However,
they also examined the populations studied and found that the research published in
the Journal of Creative Behavior had focused heavily on schoolchildren and college
students, limiting the bearing of Feist and Runco’s findings on the present chapter.
More recently, Kahl, da Fonseca, and Witte (2009) undertook an analysis of trends in
creativity research, adopting Wehner et al.’s (1991) methodology. They examined 119
dissertations on creativity from across disciplines for the period 2005–2007. Of the
empirical projects, they classified 44% as qualitative, 46% as quantitative, and 10% as
mixed, reporting that the sampled research was significantly more quantitative than it
had been two decades earlier. Because they did not examine the specific methods used
or populations studied, however, it is unclear how many interview studies of eminent
creators had been conducted.
We thus turned to the primary literature to examine the incidence of interview
research on eminent creators and its impact. We focused on the Creativity Research
Journal (CRJ), a leading peer-reviewed outlet for empirical research on creativity, and
examined articles published between its founding in 1988 and the end of 2012. As
Figure 3.1 shows, whereas the number of articles published in the journal has risen
since 1988, the number of interview-based research articles has comprised throughout
a very small fraction of the papers published in the journal. Furthermore, as the figure
shows, there have been a mere handful of interview studies of eminent creativity. Con-
sistently across its 25-year history, the journal has been dominated by research situated
57. 38 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
1993–1997 1998–2002 2003–2007 2008–2012
All Articles, Reviews, Commentaries
Figure 3.1 Partition of articles in Creativity Research Journal by half-decade, 1988–2012. All
articles, reviews, commentaries: total published entries. Articles only: reviews and commentaries
taken out – empirical research notes included. Interview-based: interview as key study method.
Interview/eminent: interview as key method, with eminent sample.
in the space outside the intersection of eminence, creativity, and the use of interview
methods. In coding, we classified articles as interview-based if they used interview as a
critical method – the use of interviews was crucial in answering the primary research
question. For an article to classify as interview/eminent, we looked specifically at the
sample and coded the article as interview/eminent if the sample was explicitly charac-
terized as eminent or prominent, and the research question was specifically focused on
the psychology of an eminent sample. Those articles that may have included an emi-
nent participant along with a spectrum of other creative persons were not classified as
interview/eminent if the focus was not directly pertaining to eminent creativity, but
rather (for example) domain-specific creativity.
It could be that this handful of papers has had an impact exceeding other papers in
the journal. However, using Google Scholar citations to provide a very rough indi-
cation of impact (Garc´ıa-P´erez, 2010), we recorded citation counts for (1) the CRJ
papers based on interviews with eminent creators and (2) the most often-cited other
empirical papers published in the journal. While keeping in mind that the latter cat-
egory contains types of articles such as quantitative reviews that the target category
does not, Table 3.1 and Table 3.2 show that at least using this metric, the differ-
ence in impact does not favor the interview-based articles. Although the latter have
been cited scores of times, the highest-cited other empirical papers have been cited
hundreds of times.
Multiple factors might account for the disparity in both incidence and impact. Tak-
ing a systems perspective on creativity research itself, a systematic analysis would need
to consider possible sources in the creativity researcher (e.g., aptitudes, interests, train-
ing), the domain of creativity research (the existence of a body of knowledge about
58. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 39
Table 3.1 Interview-based articles on eminent creativity in Creativity Research Journal,
Creativity Research Journal article title (Author, year) Citations
Personality consistency: Eminent architects
25 years later
(Dudek & Hall, 1991) 79
Correlations between avocations, scientific style,
work habits, and professional impact of
& Garnier, 1995)
The janusian process in scientific creativity (Rothenberg, 1996) 66
Creativity, mental health, and alcoholism (Rothenberg, 1990b) 49
The life space of a scientist: The visionary
function and other aspects of Jean Piaget’s
(Gruber, 1996) 34
Identification of scientists making long-term,
high-impact contributions, with notes on their
methods of working
& Garnier, 1993)
The personal characteristics and environmental
circumstances of successful women musicians
(Stremikis, 2002) 22
Studying with a musical maestro: A case study of
commonsense teaching in artistic training
(Persson, 1996) 22
The mystery in the kitchen: Culinary creativity (Horng & Hu, 2008) 20
The early lives of highly creative persons: The
influence of the complex family
(Gute, Gute, Nakamura, &
The role of problem pioneers in creative
(Patton, 2002) 5
Note. Citation count from Google Scholar as of July 15, 2013.
eminent creativity to which interview studies would contribute; a tradition of conduct-
ing qualitative research), and the field (support from funders, receptiveness of journal
editors and other gatekeepers to research on this population and using this method).
For example, at the interface between researcher and field, CRJ might be less receptive
or less attractive than other journals to researchers studying eminent creativity with
interview methods. We thought one plausible explanation might lie in the nature of
qualitative data. It seems likely that interview studies of eminent creators are more
compatible with book-length than article-length treatment.
Counterexamples come readily to mind, including brief but influential papers based
on interviews with eminent creators that present only frequency counts, such as
Andreasen’s (1987) work on the incidence of mental illness in writers, and articles
such as Roe’s (1951, 1953b) that are monograph length. However, these exceptions
may prove the rule. We examined overviews of creativity scholarship (e.g., Sawyer,
2012) in an effort to identify high-impact books about creativity based on empirical
research. We divided these between books primarily based on interviewing eminent
creators and all other kinds of research (e.g., historiographic, biographical). As can be
seen in Table 3.3 and Table 3.4, the two book categories are much more similar in
impact than the two sets of CRJ articles are, based again on the rough metric pro-
vided by Google Scholar citations. Indeed, the most cited book identified is based on
an interview study of eminent creators, Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) book, Creativity.
59. 40 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
Table 3.2 High-impact empirically based articles in Creativity Research Journal,
Creativity Research Journal article title (Author, year) Citations
The dialectics of sketching (Goldschmidt, 1991) 548
The Creative Environment scales: Work
(Amabile & Gryskiewicz,
Transformational and transactional leadership
and their effects on creativity in groups
(Jung, 2001) 257
The nature of creativity (Sternberg, 2006) 249
The effectiveness of creativity training: A
(Scott, Leritz, & Mumford,
Process analytic models of creative capacities (Mumford, Mobley,
Reiter-Palmon, Uhlman, &
The case for domain specificity of creativity (Baer, 1998) 194
Can we trust creativity tests? A review of the
Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)
(Kim, 2006) 168
Reliability, validity, and factor structure of the
Creative Achievement Questionnaire
(Carson, Peterson, &
Climate for creativity: A quantitative review (Hunter, Bedell, &
Divergent thinking, intelligence, and expertise:
A test of alternative models
(Vincent, Decker, &
Confirming the three-factor creative product
analysis matrix model in an American sample
(Besemer & O’Quin, 1999) 99
Note. Citation count from Google Scholar as of July 15, 2013.
In the next two sections, we review studies of eminent creativity that were based in
part or in whole on interviews. We first describe some of the most influential studies
to have employed interview methods. Then, we briefly highlight other examples of
interview research conducted with creative individuals. The goals are to indicate how
the interview method has been used in these studies and what has been learned.
Table 3.3 High-impact interview-based books on eminent creativity.
Book title (Author, year) Citations
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1996) 4746
Scientific Elite (Zuckerman, 1977) 1051
Making of a Scientist (Roe, 1953a) 860
Creative Collaboration (John-Steiner, 2000) 496
Notebooks of the Mind (John-Steiner, 1985) 475
Emerging Goddess (Rothenberg, 1979) 414
Creativity and Madness (Rothenberg, 1990a) 267
Scientists: Their Psychological World (Eiduson, 1962) 224
Artists in the Making (Barron, 1972) 196
Note. Citation count from Google Scholar as of July 15, 2013.
60. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 41
Table 3.4 Other high-impact empirically based books on creativity.
Book title (Author, year) Citations
Creativity in Context (Amabile, 1996) 3992
Creating Minds (Gardner, 1993) 1718
Touched with Fire (Jamison, 1996) 977
Creative Person and Creative Process (Barron, 1969) 843
Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius (Weisberg, 1993) 672
Genius, Creativity, and Leadership (Simonton, 1984) 643
Origins of Genius (Simonton, 1999) 640
Scientific Genius (Simonton, 1988b) 635
Greatness (Simonton, 1994) 588
Darwin on Man (Gruber, 1974) 541
Cradles of Eminence (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1962) 433
Note. Citation count from Google Scholar as of July 15, 2013. The second edition of Darwin on Man
(1981, University of Chicago Press) has been cited an additional 417 times.
Major Interview Studies of Eminent Creativity
Although the best-known interview studies of eminent creativity arguably are the early
ones conducted by Anne Roe and by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assess-
ment and Research, the major studies have been distributed across the decades since
the 1940s. In this section, we review a set of the major works chronologically to pro-
vide a sense of the evolution of this research. Table 3.5 summarizes features of these
major interview studies, such as the type of interview conducted and the elements of
the systems model on which the research focused.
Anne Roe: the making of a scientist (and artist)
In the 1940s, Anne Roe, a clinical psychologist, began her work on eminent creators
driven by the following research problems – what kinds of people do what kinds of
work, how do they end up in their particular vocation, and what influenced them to do
so (Roe, 1953a)? Her approach was holistic in nature and was concerned with the total
individual as a functioning person; therefore, she complemented her in-depth life his-
tory interviews with personality tests, most notably, the Rorschach and the Thematic
Apperception Test (Roe, 1953a). Roe’s research on distinguished individuals began
with a clinical study of 20 living male U.S. painters, aged 38–68, which investigated
the possible relationships between use of alcohol and creativeness (Roe, 1946). Only
one painter customarily drank to help initiate the art-making process, while others
reported that they preferred only to drink at the end of a hard day’s work to unwind.
Originally intending to follow up this study with similar studies of writers and com-
posers, Roe shifted her focus to the domain of science as she noted that the aftermath
of World War II had led to an increased societal demand and an increased public con-
sciousness of careers in science. At this time, there was no collated information on why
or how people in Western culture became scientists (Roe, 1951). Roe delved into her
investigation of scientists by first selecting her sample from esteemed societies such
as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Next,
the sampling list for each domain (e.g., biology) was submitted to an advisory group
65. 46 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
of expert scientists who rated the candidates by the quality of their work. The result-
ing sample included 64 eminent scientists from the fields of biology, physical sciences,
psychology, and anthropology. In short, while scientists from different fields exhibited
only moderate differences in their psychosocial development, a common theme found
among all groups was that they had worked at their jobs with great persistence and
personal satisfaction, fueled by intense curiosity (Roe, 1953b). Roe helped create a
strong foundation for interview research on eminent creators. A thorough presenta-
tion of interview data with exhaustive case-by-case examples, Roe’s preferred method
of reporting, can be found in her books and articles (Roe, 1946, 1951, 1953a, 1953b).
Bernice Eiduson: The Scientist Project
Bernice T. Eiduson, a UCLA clinical psychologist, in 1958 initiated The Scientist
Project, a longitudinal interview study of 40 research scientists working in the Los
Angeles area. Interviews were conducted in 1958, 1964, 1969, and 1978. Eiduson’s
goal was to characterize the psychological reality of research scientists in general, but
the sample design afforded insight into the correlates of eminent creativity. Eiduson
indicated participants were not selected based on scientific success but also indicated
they were not “average.” The range of eminence was wide, with a sizeable subgroup
of highly eminent scientists (10% were Nobel laureates, 25% National Academy of
Sciences members), a larger subgroup who apparently manifested “professional cre-
ativity” or pro-C in Kaufman and Beghetto’s (2009) sense (i.e., professional expertise
rather than domain-changing work), and a few who were not granted tenure (Root-
Bernstein, Bernstein, & Garnier, 1995). Eiduson’s premise that there is a general psy-
chology of research scientists appears supported by Root-Bernstein, Bernstein, and
Garnier (1993, 1995), who identified few psychological predictors of scientific suc-
cess despite extensive analyses.
Eiduson (1962) reported on the 1958 data, which also included clinical tests, in Sci-
entists: Their Psychological World. In 1958, Eiduson conducted with each participant
as many as three “informal” interviews, 1.5–3 hr in length, exploring how the scien-
tists “invested themselves psychologically” and probing their formative backgrounds
and current self-perceptions and attitudes toward creativity. The 1962 book presents
clinical profiles and uses extensive verbatim interview material. Based on analysis of
the interview and test data, Eiduson described a typical pattern of early recognition of
intellectual ability reinforced by extrinsic and intrinsic rewards for scientific (or more
generally intellectual) activity during youth, an “impersonal” early family environ-
ment, an orientation toward the new and unfamiliar, and a single-minded focus on
science in adulthood. In light of the last point, it is noteworthy that when Root-
Bernstein et al. (1995) analyzed the interview data in conjunction with their own
1988 follow-up questionnaire, they highlighted as a significant correlate of scientific
eminence nonscientific avocations, especially artistic ones, that were well integrated
into the scientist’s overall “network of enterprise” (p. 131; Gruber, 1974) rather than
conflicting with scientific activity.
The Institute of Personality Assessment and Research: highly
The Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR), which evolved into
today’s Institute of Personality and Social Research, was established at UC Berkeley
66. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 47
in 1949 to develop and apply psychological assessment strategies in the study of
effectively functioning and adaptive persons (Helson, 1999). Directed by Donald
MacKinnon, IPAR became known in the late 1950s and 1960s as the place where the
creative personality emerged as a key area of scientific research. Eminent architects
(MacKinnon, 1964), creative writers (Barron, 1966), space scientists, mathematicians
(Helson & Crutchfield, 1970), and other individuals were studied in attempts to
characterize a common creative personality profile (Helson, 1999).
Driven to distinguish how the creative differed from the noncreative, IPAR imple-
mented a comprehensive range of assessment techniques. Typically, around 10
assessees would spend an entire weekend at IPAR facilities and undergo life-history
interviews; take intelligence, interests, and cognitive functioning tests; fill out person-
ality assessments; complete Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) and Rorschachs; and
undergo observation by IPAR staff (Helson, 1999). While most reports of the findings
were generated from a triangulation of assessment techniques, and most heavily drew
on quantitative data sources, MacKinnon (1962) described certain patterns emerging
from the life-history interviews of eminent architects: (1) parents who granted them
unusual freedom and autonomy to explore their environments and make decisions;
(2) a tendency to identify with both parents or neither, as well as an apparent lack of
intense closeness with one or both parents, most typically the father; (3) clear standards
of conduct and ethics accompanied by consistent and predictable parental discipline,
as well as the expectation of developing their own ethical framework; and (4) a strong
attitude of skepticism in college. Dudek and Hall (1991) followed up on 70 of the 83
surviving eminent architects 25 years later, conducting further interviews and retesting
the sample on the same psychometric assessments used in earlier IPAR studies. Find-
ings suggested that the eminent architects demonstrated consistency of personality
over time, but results from the new interview data indicated that commitment, deter-
mination, overlearned skills, aesthetic sensitivity, the ability to promote one’s ideas,
and the adeptness to delegate responsibility were aptitudes that contributed to pro-
ductivity in old age. Furthermore, the impressive creativity in architects can be best
explained by Simonton’s (1984) constant probability of success model, which posits
that creative productivity is maintained throughout the career.
Harriet Zuckerman: scientific elite – Nobel laureates in the
In 1963, Harriet Zuckerman was of the opinion that sociology had for too long
neglected the social institution of science, and thus commenced her dissertation work,
setting out to explore the question of how the most outstanding scientists worked
(Zuckerman, 1977). After initially interviewing four Nobel laureates and other scien-
tists in the San Francisco Bay area, she noticed that the interviews with the laureates
were “richer and more instructive” (p. 3) than the others. In addition, since back-
ground about their research was public and widely available, she could better inform
her interview questions to tease out interesting data. Zuckerman quickly refined her
research strategy to include only Nobel Prize recipients living and working in the
United States, interviewing 41 out of these 55 “ultra-elite” creators (Zuckerman,
1972). Zuckerman leveraged interviewing and extensive document analysis, which
primarily served as a preparatory phase before the interviews, to investigate the Nobel
Prize as an institution, the stratification system of science, and the social processes
that tend to produce an accretion of advantage in science. At over 1,000 citations, her
67. 48 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
book describing her research on the scientific elite remains a paradigm for eminent
interviewing research to this day (Table 3.3).
Albert Rothenberg: studies in the creative process
Albert Rothenberg’s intensive research project investigating the creative process of
eminent creators has spanned over 25 years, consisting of over 2,400 hr of interviews
with more than 125 outstanding participants in the arts and sciences (Rothenberg,
1990b, 1996). These interviews focused on the creative process of work in progress
in art, literature, and scientific research, concentrating on the nature and source of
current and past ideas, themes, fantasies, inspirations, dreams, motivations, and life
experiences connected with the work (Rothenberg, 1979, 1996). Creators were deter-
mined eminent based on receipt of major awards (e.g., Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes), but
were also independently assessed as having recently produced work deemed both new
and valuable by a panel of expert peers. Rothenberg’s interviewing strategy and imple-
mentation is unique. Interviews were scheduled on a weekly or biweekly basis, some-
times ongoing for two to three years as the eminent creator proceeded in their work
(Rothenberg, 1979, 1990b, 1996). The interviewee was viewed as a “vital and full
collaborator” (Rothenberg, 1979, p. 10) in the research process, and the continuing
interviews were leveraged as a tool to examine creativity and “capture as much of its
freewheeling, unexpected innovative pathways as possible” (p. 10). In addition, this
research program exemplifies commitment to scientific validity, with systematic sam-
pling criteria, matched controls, and experimental verification of the interview results.
Using a mixed-methods approach that included controlled experiments and docu-
mentary analyses and reconstructions, Rothenberg is known for defining the signif-
icance of janusian and homospatial thinking in the creative process of eminent indi-
viduals. Janusian thinking pertains to the process of actively conceptualizing two or
more antithetical or opposite ideas or images simultaneously (Rothenberg, 1996). It
is the initial inspiring, paradoxical idea that propels a creator to work, and should
not be confused with dialectical or schizophrenic thinking; Creativity and Madness
(Rothenberg, 1990a) presented Rothenberg’s general conclusion that the cognition
of eminent creators is not rooted in psychopathology. An example is Einstein’s janu-
sian thought of an observer in free fall being both in motion and at rest at the same
time. Homospatial thinking is the active conception of two or more discrete entities
occupying the same space, becoming superimposed, which leads to the articulation of
new identities (Rothenberg, 1979). The products of homospatial thinking are novel
and aid in the process of clarifying janusian ideas. For example, a Nobel laureate in
microbiology claimed that he visualized himself superimposed upon an atom in an
enzyme molecule as he was engaged in the process of creating a new scientific theory
Vera John-Steiner: Notebooks of the Mind
In her 1985 book, Notebooks of the Mind, psychologist Vera John-Steiner drew on
interviews with approximately 65 artists, writers, humanists, mathematicians, natu-
ral scientists, and social scientists, both men and women, representing a broad range
of domains; the largest numbers were in psychology and choreography. She char-
acterized the focus of the study as the “processes of thought” in “experienced and
68. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 49
productive thinkers” (p. 3). The basis on which interviewees were selected is not dis-
cussed at length, but many were unambiguous examples of eminent creativity (e.g.,
Francis Crick in biology, Erick Hawkins in choreography). Vygotsky’s influence is
visible in John-Steiner’s sensitivity to sociocultural and historical context; Howard
Gruber’s and Jerome Bruner’s influences are manifested in the combination of inter-
viewing with the examination of biographies and “reflective sources” (notebooks, let-
ters, journals, autobiographies), and in the basic interest in “the swift flight of man’s
mind at its best” (p. 3). Half the book treats the early development of the interviewees.
One finding is the characteristic creative intensity or need to know and explore that
fuels the individual’s dialogue with the domain; another is the critical role of appren-
ticeships. The other half of the book treats the creative use of the symbolic systems
that define domains, evocatively called “languages of the mind.” Methodologically,
the study began with interviews about scientific thinking. In line with Howard Gard-
ner’s “Rosetta Stone questions,” John-Steiner discovered that eminent scientists and
mathematicians could not answer the unvarnished question “How do you think?”
but they could respond comparatively if they were provided with a short first-person
account of someone else’s (e.g., Einstein’s) process of thinking.
Nancy Andreasen: creativity and mental illness
Psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen interviewed a sample of creative writers and a con-
trol group in order to investigate the prevalence of affective disorders in writers.
Her brief 1987 article summarizing this research study has been highly influential,
addressing a topic that had long been of interest among creativity researchers and
beyond. Andreasen did not find support for her original hypothesis that the incidence
of schizophrenia would be elevated in the creative sample but did find that the writers
she interviewed reported a significantly higher lifetime incidence of affective disor-
der than did the controls (80% vs. 30%) as well as a higher rate of alcoholism and, at
least based on family histories elicited from the study participants, higher rates of both
creativity and affective disorder in the immediate family.
Examinations of the incidence of psychopathology constitute an important subset of
creativity studies that have utilized interview methods. In these studies, clinical inter-
views have been employed to provide more accurate evidence of incidence rates than an
analysis of biographical sources can do. In line with the goal of Andreasen’s and similar
studies, the interviewer seeks to elicit some standardized information. The establish-
ment of a research alliance and assurance of confidentiality may be especially impor-
tant to the validity of the results, given the sensitive nature of the topics addressed.
Studies utilizing interviews, surveys, and historiometric analysis have supported a rela-
tion between affective disorders and creativity in writers (e.g., Jamison, 1989; Lud-
wig, 1998; Post, 1994); critics have raised methodological issues about some of this
research (e.g., Sawyer, 2012), and the relationship continues to be debated and inves-
tigated (e.g., Rothenberg, 1990a, cited above).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity in Later Life Study
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) directed the Creativity in Later Life
Study, reporting the results of interviews with eminent creators age 50 and older in the
69. 50 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
book Creativity. Analysis was guided by the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1988; see above), a framework inspired in part by an earlier longitudinal study
of visual artists first interviewed during art school in 1963, again early in their careers,
and finally at midlife (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976). In that study, some students
of high creative potential based on tests and teacher ratings later languished profes-
sionally, not because of a lack of ability but because they struggled to interface with the
field (gallery owners, critics, collectors). Much of Creativity comprises a richly detailed
account from the systems perspective of the dynamics of person, domain, and field in
long-term creative accomplishment. Drawing on the interview data, it describes how
individuals with particular interests and skills engaged a domain of science or art and
made contributions to it that were recognized by the associated field’s gatekeepers.
The interview data also allowed Csikszentmihalyi to extend the systems model. For
example, he concluded that over time, the creator builds up an internal model of the
domain, the field, and the creator’s relations to them. The inference is that eminent
creativity entails interacting with domain and field, and thus depends on formation
of this mental model. A central finding of the study further illuminated the creative
person from a systems perspective. As in many earlier studies, curiosity and a keen
interest in the domain emerged as common characteristics of eminent creators. In
addition, however, interviews revealed a complex personality marked by the capacity
to function at both ends of certain dimensions rather than in the midrange or only
at one of the extremes. Responses suggested flexible capacities for both energy and
quietude; divergent and convergent thinking; playfulness and discipline; selflessness
and ambition; iconoclasm and tradition. Csikszentmihalyi identified 10 such forms of
functioning. He inferred that the capacity to function in this complex way enables
modes of experience (e.g., drawing more unusual connections between ideas; alter-
nating between solitary work and interaction with the field) that may increase the
likelihood of creative achievement.
Finally, this study was intended to illuminate creativity in the second half of life.
Complementing rather than competing with historiometric research on age and
eminence (Lehman, 1953; Simonton, 1988a), Csikszentmihalyi analyzed relations
between aging and creating that the individuals themselves reported. For no element
of the system (person, relations with domain, relations with field) did the sample report
a greater number of negative changes with age than positive ones. Even regarding
physical and cognitive capacities, fully half of the reported changes were positive. Csik-
szentmihalyi was disinclined to ascribe this “rosy picture” entirely to self-presentation
or denial; instead he attributed it to the relationship with a domain that is constantly
presenting new possibilities and permits a creator to stay engaged until the end.
Vera John-Steiner: creative collaborations
We close this review of major studies with a second study by Vera John-Steiner. Con-
tinuing her research into the creative process and person, in this study she emphasized
her Vygotskian perspective on creativity by challenging the traditional psychological
notion that creativity is an individual phenomenon (John-Steiner, 2000). Drawing
on extensive interviews in conjunction with biographical information and collabora-
tor Q-sorts, John-Steiner examined the interdependence of eminent creators in the
coconstruction of knowledge and demonstrated how social, cultural, historical, and
biological conditions all contribute to creativity.
70. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 51
Other Interview Research on Creativity
Before closing, we briefly address the research possibilities illustrated by other inter-
view studies of creativity. In this section, we sometimes discuss interview studies
including pro-C individuals, in order to spotlight a promising data collection or ana-
Most of the major studies just reviewed relied on semistructured interviews and tra-
ditional methods of data analysis, drawing out of the qualitative data (1) themes and
patterns (e.g., John-Steiner’s creative intensity), (2) grounded theory (e.g., Csikszent-
mihalyi’s complex personality), (3) case profiles (e.g., Eiduson’s scientists), and/or
(4) counts (e.g., Zuckerman’s proportion of Nobel laureates who were ambivalent
about the work for which they had won the Prize [“almost half”]). They also illus-
trate the use of interviews as a way of gaining a deeper, richer understanding; at the
extreme, Rothenberg conducted many interviews over a long period of time with cre-
ators. The literature also includes interview studies representing a number of other
qualitative research traditions, including case study, ethnographic, phenomenologi-
cal, and hermeneutic (interpretive) approaches. Illustrative examples of each of these
may be helpful.
In one (cognitive) case study, Gruber (1996; cf. Gruber, 1974) drew on nine inter-
views with Jean Piaget as well as other sources, to examine Piaget’s thought processes
in his creative work. In an influential ethnographic study of “online” creative cognition
in four science labs, Dunbar (1997) interviewed the lab members before and after
the lab meetings that he observed, in order to understand what he was seeing and
probe the impact of the meeting. In a phenomenological study of the creative process
in the arts, Nelson (Nelson & Rawlings, 2007) conducted interviews with 11 profes-
sional artists to elicit their emic accounts of the experience of creativity, from which
the experience’s constituent elements then were distilled. In this research program,
the qualitative results informed development of a quantitative measure of the experi-
ence (Nelson & Rawlings, 2009), one traditional use of qualitative data in the research
cycle. Finally, hermeneutic/interpretive study, which treats the interview as a narrative
text, has been used to illuminate both the person and the domain/field in the context
of artistic creativity. Using Sigmund Koch’s interviews with writers Toni Morrison and
Arthur Miller, Akerman and Ouellette (2012) analyzed the impact of creative work
on the self and identity of the writer; using midlife interviews with Getzels and Csik-
szentmihalyi’s (1976) former art students, Freeman (1993) analyzed the perceived
impact of the field (e.g., gallery owners) on interviewees’ artistic careers. Space does
not permit a discussion of data-analytic approaches but these also might be distilled
from the literature. To give one example, in Feist’s (1993) multimethod study of fac-
tors contributing to eminence in science, raters, blind to level of eminence, listened
to audio recordings of interviews with 99 research scientists and used the California
Q-Sort to characterize their personalities.
The major studies also illustrated some traditional ways of putting interviews front
and center in a mixed-methods approach to eminent creativity; for example, in com-
bination with psychological tests and questionnaires (e.g., Roe), lab notebooks (e.g.,
John-Steiner), controlled experiments (e.g., Rothenberg). They also introduced less
familiar mixed-methods approaches, such as John-Steiner’s use of Q-sorts by the col-
laborators in a creative project. Studies just mentioned, such as Dunbar’s ethnographic
71. 52 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
research, offer additional examples. Many others would warrant discussion if space per-
mitted. To offer just one more, Gl˘aveanu and Lahlou (2012) asked artists to pursue
their craft while wearing a small video camera affixed to the forehead; interviews then
were conducted with the recorded artist’s-eye view of the creative process as the joint
focus of discussion, affording an “evidence-based, controlled, analytic reconstruction”
Finally, throughout this chapter we have employed Csikszentmihalyi’s (1988) sys-
tems model as a framework to maintain awareness that although in interview research
the unit of study is the individual, the topic of study need not be. Because we conceptu-
alize eminent creativity as a joint function of person, domain, and field as these interact
with one another within a larger sociocultural and historical framework, we close by
asking where the past interview research on eminent creativity has been focused.
Clearly, many of the major interview studies focused on person and on process (i.e.,
person–domain interactions). As interviews yield data about subjectivity, this makes
sense. Interviews about collaborative creativity and the role of apprenticeship make
clear that the systems model needs to take these proximal interactions into account,
and the interview method, alone or in conjunction with other methods, is a useful
tool. Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) use of the systems model as a lens in his interview
study suggested that the process of learning to work successfully in a creative domain
may require first developing a mental model of the relations among self, domain,
and field. Some psychological research, such as Freeman’s (1993) study of artists, has
addressed the role of gatekeepers in eminent creativity. Their role, or the role of the
field more broadly, is a central subject matter in the sociology of science, technol-
ogy, and culture, which this review has barely touched. Stepping back, an area that
seems ripe for expansion is the study of the role of macrostructural forces in creativity.
Participants in the interview studies reviewed in this chapter worked primarily in the
United States. Interview research in Turkey and Poland has shown promise in reveal-
ing how society and culture can reach into the individual’s interactions with a domain
(e.g., Gunersel, 2009; Lebuda, personal communication, April 2013). In deciding
whether to use interview methods in research on eminent creativity in other cultures,
we suspect the same essential reason applies that we discussed in this chapter. That
is, across cultures, the interview method is appropriate when the inquiry will benefit
significantly from the semistructured interaction of interviewer and creator about a
phenomenon; this forms the essence of the interview method.
Best Practices for Interviewing Eminent Creators
The motivations behind conducting interview studies with eminent creators are com-
pelling, and those courageous enough to persevere through the arduous preparation,
execution, and analysis of the interviews have been rewarded by obtaining insights
into the highest forms of creativity known to human culture. As one may infer from
Figure 3.1, undertaking such studies is a major endeavor that many opt not to com-
mence. Nevertheless, we share Ostrander’s (1993) belief that many potential emi-
nence researchers may simply lack the perceived efficacy to overcome the resistance
to carrying out high-quality interview studies with eminent samples. For this reason,
we include a brief section on best practices for interviewing eminent creators with
hopes that it may provide the initial spark of confidence to get one started on such
72. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 53
research. In-depth guidelines for conducting qualitative interviews can be found else-
where (Seidman, 1998; Weiss, 1994). The following themes and best practices have
been synthesized from the literature on interviewing elites and eminent creators, and
from the input from creativity researchers who have successfully executed interview
studies with eminent samples.
Before getting started
Best practice #1: keeping the primary research question in mind The research question
should be one in which the researcher hopes to gain a sense of richness and texture.
Interviews provide the freedom to explore unexpected directions and allow for the
emergence of information that the researcher might not have even thought of. How-
ever, interviewing should be avoided as the primary method unless necessary to fully
address the research question. Dexter (1970) adamantly purports that interviewing
is only the preferred mode of data collection when it appears that it will get better
data or more data at less cost than other methods. Costs include time, money, effort, as
well as opportunity costs of not doing other research. Lastly, one must face the reality
that obtaining sufficient funding for large-scale interview studies of eminent creators
may prove to be challenging (Roe, 1953a). To secure necessary resources, the primary
research question must be convincing to external stakeholders.
Best practice #2: focusing the study on a specific group of eminent creators Once inter-
viewing has been deemed the appropriate tactic to address the research questions, the
next step is to select the sample wisely. Interviewing is an engaging experience for
the prepared researcher, and interacting with eminent creators might become a high-
light of one’s career; however, one must choose the appropriate domain. Research has
shown differences in creative process and person between and within various forms
of artistic and scientific creativity (MacKinnon, 1962; Roe, 1953b); thus, aligning
domain and research question is crucial. This does not preclude the possibility that a
multidisciplinary sample is appropriate to some research questions. Second, one must
determine what criteria will classify participants as “eminent.” Common specifications
include exceptional productivity (Feist, 1997), social validation by peers in the form
of citations (Gordon & Vicari, 1992), nominations/recommendations (MacKinnon,
1962; Roe, 1951, 1953a, 1953b) or awards (Gunersel, 2009; Horng & Hu, 2008;
Rothenberg, 1979, 1996; Zuckerman, 1972, 1977), and/or membership in esteemed
societies (Roe, 1953a; Root-Bernstein et al., 1995). After the eminence criteria are
selected, one may wish to further focus the sample by setting limits on gender (Feist,
1993; Roe, 1951), age (Roe, 1951, 1953a, 1953b), and/or stage of career in order
to help control sources of variance in the data.
Best practice # 3: keeping recruitment materials simple When recruiting Nobel laure-
ates, Zuckerman (1972) found that her initial invitation letters may have been too
lengthy and convoluted when one of her potential interviewees remarked that he
73. 54 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
hadn’t the time to read the letter thoroughly. Elites and people of eminence are quite
busy, constrained for time, and often overcommitted (Dexter, 1970). Keeping recruit-
ment activities concise may help acceptance rates. After this realization, Zuckerman
revised her invitation letters to include only four pieces of information, which brings
us to the next best practice.
Best practice # 4: demonstrating the proper amount of credibility by disclosing relevant
information The four pieces that Zuckerman included in her invitation were the fol-
lowing: (1) identifying herself as a Fellow of the Social Science Research Council at
Columbia University, (2) explicitly stating that she was the recipient of a grant from the
National Science Foundation, (3) giving a brief overview of the purpose of the study,
and (4) identifying some laureates who had already been or agreed to be interviewed.
These pieces of information served to legitimate her request by demonstrating her
status as a researcher at a prestigious university who is respected enough to be granted
funding to further pursue her work, and whose study is interesting enough that other
eminent people desire to be a part of it. By divulging the purpose of the study at a
high level, it may help elicit curiosity in the potential participant (Henderson, 2004;
Roe, 1953a) and bolster self-esteem (Roe, 1953a). What an honor and sign of respect
to be identified as a person of the highest eminence! Dexter (1970) adds support
to the principle of not explaining the study or status in too much detail, as it may
unintentionally bring about feelings of resistance and self-protection – elites do not
want to appear as if they might not have the knowledge or awareness to answer possi-
ble questions, and they most likely do not want to feel out-elited by the interviewer.
Harvey (2011) suggested also indicating interview length, how the data will be used,
where the results will be disseminated, and whether information will be confidential
Getting ready for the interview
Best practice # 5: extensively preparing One of the most common themes in inter-
viewing eminent creators is the need to prepare sufficiently before each interview,
almost to the extent of overpreparation. The researcher must become technically pro-
ficient in the language of the domain of study in order to fundamentally comprehend
what creators are even talking about (Roe, 1953a). Zuckerman (1972) explicitly seg-
mented her preparation into four phases. First, she thoroughly examined biographical
data and quantitatively analyzed the creator’s migration, job changes, and promotion
rates. With these data she constructed quasi-sociometric “career maps” (p. 164) to
be able to pinpoint each creator in a certain place at a certain time. Second, Zucker-
man scrutinized the annual volumes published by the Nobel Foundation containing
laureates’ addresses in Stockholm and other recorded remarks from the Nobel ban-
quets. During these addresses, Nobel laureates often reviewed their prize-winning
research and the factors contributing to success. The third phase of preparation con-
sisted of locating additional publications written by the laureates, but for lay audiences.
Furthermore, complete bibliographies were requested from each laureate so that col-
laborative relationships and foci of their research could be assessed. The fourth and
final phase of preparation consisted of creating a one-page summary of each laureate’s
career and work, which served as a reference for the interviewer during the course
74. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 55
of the interview. Morrissey (1970) extends the utility of having documents at hand
to serve as memory-recall aids for interviewees. This great amount of preparation not
only ensures one knows relevant technical language, but helps legitimize the interview
and time volunteered by the eminent creator. It shows respect and aids in formulating
more relevant questions, eliciting better data. Lastly, the researcher will almost cer-
tainly be qualified and evaluated by the interviewee, either explicitly or implicitly, as
a test of credibility (Ostrander, 1993; Stephens, 2007), and perhaps might even be
criticized for a bad question or lack of understanding (Harvey, 2011). Thus, being
well prepared is absolutely critical.
Best practice # 6: scheduling to fit respondent needs Whenever the eminent creator pro-
poses to be interviewed is the appropriate time to schedule the interview session – this
is often a time that is least inconvenient for them, as their schedules are normally full
(Dexter, 1970; Zuckerman, 1972). It is therefore a best practice to provide a wide
range of possible interview times and let the potential participant decide. Deciding
on the place is a trickier matter. The private office or location is best, so as not to be
interrupted (Dexter, 1970; Horng & Hu, 2008). Creators’ homes can be successfully
used, as they can make the respondents feel more comfortable and relaxed (Gunersel,
2009), but it may be desirable to ask for a different private location if there is the possi-
bility that the respondent’s family members will be present and potentially distracting
During the interview
Best practice # 7: building rapport during the interview and beyond Harvey (2011)
believes that rapport can originate from the moment of first contact by demonstrat-
ing transparency and credibility, but that it becomes especially imperative to cultivate
during the interview. While interviewing, the researcher needs to consider how they
are presenting themselves. The most effective interviewers are those who can adjust
their style and make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible (Weiss, 1994). For
example, one may shift between “‘playing dumb’ with older patriarchal figures” (Har-
vey, 2011, p. 434), sisterly or brotherly with interviewees of the same age or position,
or well informed to demonstrate expertise. Modeling the interview after a conversa-
tion between a supervisor and graduate student might also leverage a notable age gap,
as these types of conversations are common occurrences in the lives of some eminent
creators (Stephens, 2007). Clues for how one may present oneself most effectively
emerge via visual and verbal clues throughout the interview process. Harvey (2011)
has found that a good way to gauge how well he has conducted an interview is by see-
ing how open the interviewee is to referring other respondents. Ultimately, through
building rapport, one establishes trust, openness, and comfort; a trusting respondent
will give the researcher better data and access.
While essential to any interviewer, those whose interviewees are eminent must espe-
cially demonstrate concentrated attention and empathetic understanding (Dexter,
1970). Eminent individuals, although highly admired and respected, rarely receive
such focused and unwavering attention to their stories and insights, and can find it
quite flattering. More importantly, the interviewer needs to be able to shift gears
rapidly, as eminent creators may make unconnected jumps in their lines of thought,
75. 56 Jeanne Nakamura and Jeff Fajans
and these must be effectively processed to avoid missing out on valuable data. Atten-
tion must be utilized to listen deeply, rather than immediately trying to make sense
from one’s own perspective of what the interviewee means. Empathetic understanding
is the ability to fully grasp and feel what the other person is experiencing. This skill
can help the interviewer ask appropriate follow-up questions to dive deeper into the
meaning and significance of the dialogue.
Best practice # 8: using semistructured interviews to give the respondent freedom and the
researcher flexibility A question that too sharply defines a particular area for discus-
sion is far more likely to result in omission of some vital data that the interviewer may
not have thought of (Dexter, 1970). The use of well-planned and executed, semistruc-
tured rather than structured interviews, with eminent samples, permits the researcher
to better understand the lived experience of the participant and to be flexible in explor-
ing unexpected, yet important, directions. Many elites and eminent creators dislike a
steady flow of questions (Dexter, 1970), and to attempt such a rigid line of interroga-
tions might even be perceived as disrespectful (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Rather than
“rat-a-tat-tat questioning” (Dexter, 1970, p. 56), the semistructured interview pro-
cess should bear a resemblance to a discussion. One researcher we consulted begins
with a series of questions motivated by the primary theoretical interests and goals for
the study, but quickly switches to a more discursive approach, where the following
questions are informed more by the interviewee’s interests and priorities than by only
the researcher’s prepared lot. By forming questions that tap into both the researcher’s
and interviewee’s interests, one can avoid becoming too impersonal and mechanical,
which often results in impersonal and mechanical answers. Giving the respondent free-
dom to elaborate, or even shift into a quasi-monologue stimulated by understanding
comments, can be a powerful technique to elicit intriguing data (Dexter, 1970).
While operating this loosely may be terrifying to many interviewers, the flow and
timing of the questions must be carefully planned to account for the time required to
build rapport and to take into consideration the possible waning of the respondent’s
interest and energy. It is suggested that the interview be commenced with questions
regarding educational and professional background or other “ice breakers” before
moving on to more focused, challenging, and personal questions (Dexter, 1970).
Toward the end of the interviews, respondents can begin to become tired and less
attentive, so the most important and perhaps most challenging questions should be
posed sometime in the middle of the interview.
There is no clear-cut right amount of time when considering interview duration
(Harvey, 2011). Typically interviews might last around an hour and a half when deal-
ing with eminent samples, but this largely depends on the context, the interview ques-
tions, the amount of available time, and the skill of the interviewer. Interview durations
have been reported within the range of 45 min (Cho et al., 2011; Stephens, 2007) all
the way up to 5 hr (Dudek & Hall, 1991; Freeman, 1993).
After the interview
Reflecting on the interview and immediately writing up notes, and matching data-
analysis procedures to research questions, are techniques generic to any interview
study (Weiss, 1994). However, one best practice that is particularly relevant when
the sample is eminent should be addressed.
76. Interviewing Highly Eminent Creators 57
Best practice # 9: confirming notes with respondents for accuracy, editing, and level of con-
fidentiality As public figures, some eminent creators are particularly concerned about
the way their comments in interviews will be used (others are notably unconcerned).
One informant noted there is always a possibility that interviewees will have second
thoughts upon seeing their remarks within the context of a publication. Researchers
may offer interviewees several different levels of confidentiality (e.g., use of attributed
quotes, use of quotes but without attribution, use of comments only in aggregate
analyses such as frequency counts, use only as background); they may invite each inter-
viewee to review a transcript of the interview for accuracy and to adjust confidentiality
level before data analysis begins; and they may provide the opportunity to review the
research report prior to publication to confirm that comments have been accurately
represented. Insofar as it may have some effect on the candor and accuracy of the
responses elicited, it might be helpful if researchers routinely reported how they have
Within the landscape of creativity research, a small corner has been devoted over the
years to the interview study of highly eminent creators. We have reviewed researchers’
reasons for adopting interview methods, described research using these methods,
and distilled best practices for doing such research. There are multiple interview
approaches, grounded in different philosophies of method, but the key reasons for
interviewing are widely shared. The face-to-face, dialogical encounter gives both the
interviewer and the interviewee unparalleled control over what can be learned. In
addition, compared with other methods, what can be learned is richer, more nuanced,
and a better reflection of the individuality of the interviewee, and may hold greater
potential for discovering the unexpected. Well-known objections to qualitative meth-
ods notwithstanding, we conclude that interview studies have yielded valuable the-
ory and knowledge. Having used the systems perspective as a lens in reviewing past
research, we suggest that future researchers devote more attention to the eminent cre-
ator’s potential as a privileged informant about the social field, and about the broader
societal and cultural forces that impact eminent creators. In addition, whether study-
ing person, process, domain, field, and/or sociocultural context, the use of mixed
methods (i.e., combining interviewing with other methods) constitutes a promising
direction for future research on eminent creativity. In the end, the research question
determines what research method – or methods – will be most useful.
We extend our sincere thanks to the researchers who took time to share their
thoughts about interviewing eminent creators: Nancy Andreasen, Mihaly Csikszent-
mihalyi, Charlotte Doyle, Gregory Feist, Mark Freeman, Howard Gardner, Vlad Petre
Glaveanu, A. Baris Gunersel, Gary Gute, Vera John-Steiner, Izabela Lebuda, Seana
Moran, Barnaby Nelson, Sally Reis, Albert Rothenberg, and Keith Sawyer. We of
course bear full responsibility for any shortcomings of the chapter.
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Psychometric Studies of Scientific
Talent and Eminence
Gregory J. Feist
As someone who has studied creativity for more than 25 years, I can say that one of
the more common responses I get from people when I tell them what I study is “How
can you measure that?” Some ask this with a genuine sense of curiosity; others with
a dismissive sense of doubt and skepticism. People are often surprised therefore when
I tell them that creativity (and its cousins, talent and genius) can be measured and is
in many different ways. Indeed, as Thorndike put it almost than 100 years ago, “If
a thing exists, it exists in some amount … and if it exists in some amount, it can be
measured” (Thorndike, 1914, p. 141).
As a scientist of creativity and a psychologist of science, I do subscribe to the value
and importance of measuring topics empirically and with as much rigor as possible.
Scientific talent, eminence, and creativity, while difficult to assess, are assessable and
measurable. To be sure, not all assessment techniques are equally reliable and valid,
and some lead to more robust conclusions than others do. In this chapter, I overview
and summarize some of the distinct methods of assessing scientific talent and attempt
to integrate these findings with consensual conclusions.
My primary means of organizing the literature on psychometric studies of scien-
tific talent and genius is by psychological perspective. I conclude there are at least five
distinct methods and perspectives: behavioral genetic, developmental, cognitive, per-
sonality, and social-cultural. To be sure, this list is not exhaustive. Most notably there
are historiometric studies (see Simonton, 1990; Chapter 5), qualitative techniques
such as interviews (see Chapter 3), and psychobiographies (see Chapter 2). I, how-
ever, focus on the quantitative psychometric methods and leave qualitative and his-
toriometric techniques to others. I further argue that scientific talent is often domain
specific, with distinct talent and skill sets in each domain. Before getting into these
issues, however, I must start by defining my terms, scientific talent and eminence.
Scientific Talent and Eminence Defined
My definition of talent also begins with the assumption that talent in general and in
science in particular results from a complex dynamic of biological and environmental
forces, that is, it is the outcome of both nature and nurture. Natural talent is shaped by
The Wiley Handbook of Genius, First Edition. Edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
82. Psychometric Studies 63
drive and training to produce world-class achievement, and so it is in science. By nat-
ural talent, I mean variations in physiological systems (genes, neural processing, brain
structures) that affect various skill sets necessary for achievement. Inherent to the term
“talent” is some degree of natural or innate ability. This is especially clear when scholars
use the dichotomy “talent versus training” – the old nature versus nurture again.
But innate is never fully innate, of course, if we mean “free from all environmental
influence.” Physiological systems cannot operate outside of or beyond a context or
environmental influence. By operating in an environment, talent is inherently shaped
and modified by input from that particular environment. The relatively new sciences of
epigenetics and neuroplasticity make it clear that biological systems are modified reg-
ularly by environmental input, stimulation, and experience. Both of these cases make
clear that innate is never purely innate. It is not nature or nurture but rather nature and
nurture, or, to paraphrase Matt Ridley’s phrase, “nature shaped by nurture” (Ridley,
2003). The either/or option is no longer an option.
To elaborate, recently I developed a pyramidal model of talent and training shown
in Figure 4.1 (Feist, 2013). The model makes a few assumptions. First, talent and
expertise range from novice to master, with numerous stages in between (Chi, 2006;
Hoffman, 1998). Second, the proportion of people in the population with a given
degree of achievement via talent and training declines directly as one scales the ladder
of achievement (see horizontal axis). Third, as one moves up the pyramid of achieve-
ment, talent and training continually influence each other. Natural talent starts the
process and influences one’s interest in a particular skill or set of skills. The fact is
that talent feeds on training, just as training feeds on talent (Papierno, Ceci, Makel, &
Williams, 2005). The more talented people are in a given domain, the better they are
and the more they improve with intensive training. Doing well, in turn, provides posi-
tive feedback and reinforcement, and they become more and more dedicated to delib-
erative practice and training. The talented person is more likely than the less talented
person to train and practice, and to get more out of each practice. These differences
accumulate from month to month, year to year. The talented – including scientifically
talented – train more and more, and reach expert levels of accomplishment faster than
less talented individuals (cf. Epstein, 2013; Papierno et al., 2005). Indeed, many less
talented people may well give up and stop playing/studying/performing for the sim-
ple reason that they do not enjoy the activity as much. Indeed, intrinsic motivation
is tied to talent in general, and talent in science in particular. People who are very
talented in a given domain often simply enjoy the process more than less talented
people. Early expressions of ability, success, and achievement are reinforcing and spur
on further interest and desire to train in the domain of one’s ability. In short, talent
and training are often mutually reinforcing, and to say that all experts practiced a lot,
and therefore talent does not matter, misses the mutually reinforcing cycle between
talent and training (see, e.g., Howe, 1999; Howe, Davidson, & Sloboda, 1998).
Eminence is a more objective metric of accomplishment and achievement than tal-
ent. It necessarily reflects one’s standing in a field or discipline. Eminent artists, writers,
musicians, or scientists are both well known and influential – they have inordinately
shaped and changed the directions of their chosen disciplines. Indeed, truly eminent
creators create new fields or movements. They transform the discipline.
In science, one of the more common methods of assessing eminence, for example,
is through peer-based recognition and awards. One form of peer-based recognition
comes in the form of citation analysis and assessment of impact on the field (Cole &
83. 64 Gregory J. Feist
Level of Achievement:
Level of Expertise:
Frequency in Population
Figure 4.1 Pyramidal model of talent and training (Feist, 2013). With kind permission from
Springer Science and Business Media.
Cole, 1973; Feist, 1993, 1997; Shadish, 1989; Simonton, 1988b; Sonnert, 1995). A
related but not completely overlapping metric of eminence is awards and honors, and
their prestige (Cole & Cole, 1973; Feist, 1997; Merton, 1973). It is too simple to say
that scientific awards are nothing but meritocratic, but there is quite a bit of evidence
that awards and award type are validated by other measures of impact and eminence
in science (Chan, Gleeson, & Torgler, 2013; Cole & Cole, 1973; Feist, 1993, 1997;
Simonton, 1988b; Zuckerman, 1977).
Psychometric Investigations of Scientific Talent
Like almost any topic, scientific eminence and talent are best assessed from all sides,
using many different approaches and techniques. Over the years, scholars of creativity
84. Psychometric Studies 65
and talent in science have done just that, and I briefly review these attempts in
Behavioral genetic studies
Research on the heritability of talent tends to confirm that genetic factors are neces-
sary for the attainment of talent in various domains, including music, athletics, math,
chess, language, and memory (Coon & Carey, 1989; Haworth et al., 2009; Howe
et al., 1998; Lubinski, Benbow, Webb, & Bleske-Rechek, 2006; Ruthsatz, Detter-
man, Griscom, & Cirullo, 2008; Vinkhuyzen, van der Sluis, Posthuma, & Boomsma,
2009). In the Vinkhuyzen et al. study, for example, more than 1,600 twin pairs were
assessed on the extent to which they showed exceptional talent in various domains
such as music, chess, sport, and memory. Heritability estimates were calculated by
comparing correlations between monozygotic and dyzygotic twin-pairs. Heritability
coefficients (additive genetic influence) explained from 50% to 92% of the variance
in talent. Heritability coefficients were strongest in music (.92), math (.87), sports
(.85), and writing (.83). Unshared-environment estimates explained from 8% to 44%
of the talent variation, whereas shared-environment estimates explained only one tal-
ent domain, language (23% of the variation).
There are few, if any, studies on heritability of scientific talent, but there are liter-
atures on three related components of scientific talent, namely general intelligence,
mathematical ability, and vocational interests. A precondition for being a scientist is
being above average in intelligence. In fact, the average IQ for scientists and math-
ematicians approaches 130 (Gibson & Light, 1992; Helson & Crutchfield, 1970;
MacKinnon & Hall, 1972). Heritability estimates (h2) of g (general intelligence) range
from about .40 to .70 with a typical coefficient being in the .50 range (Grigorenko,
2000; Haworth et al., 2009; Lynn, 2006; Plomin and Petrill, 1997). Surprisingly, her-
itability of intelligence appears to increase between childhood and adolescence, with
estimates being 41% at age 9, 55% at age 12, and 66% at age 17 (Haworth et al., 2010).
Moreover, when focusing on high intelligence only (e.g., top 15% of IQ scores), heri-
tability estimates are also in the .50 range (Haworth et al., 2009). Finally, specific DNA
markers of intelligence have only recently been uncovered (Plomin et al., 2013).
Research that comes the closest to examining the heritability of scientific interest –
and its foundation in intelligence – is the research on heritability of vocational interests.
Heritability coefficients of vocational interests in science or science hobbies range from
.41 to .61 (Harris, Vernon, Johnson, & Jang, 2006; Hur, McGue, & Iacono, 1996;
Schermer & Vernon, 2008). Schermer and Vernon (2008), for example, reported
heritabilities of vocational interest for physical science of .50, for math of .50, for
engineering of .52, for life sciences of .44, and for social science of .61.
There is, however, one recent direct analysis of heritability of scientific intelligence
and personality by Simonton (2008). In this paper, Simonton developed a heritabil-
ity model of scientific talent. Like intelligence, personality tends to have heritabil-
ity coefficients ranging from .40 to .60, with a typical coefficient being around .45
(Plomin & Caspi, 1999). In short, about 45–50% of variability in both personality
and intelligence can be explained by genetic influences. Simonton asked: How much
of the variance in scientific talent can be explained by these genetic factors associated
with personality and intelligence? Using effects sizes between personality and creativ-
ity and heritability coefficients from twin-studies (G. Carey, Goldsmith, Tellegen, &
Gottesman, 1978), he was able to calculate criterion heritability estimates for the
85. 66 Gregory J. Feist
criterion of scientific achievement (talent). Overall, using personality and intelligence
predictors of scientific achievement, Simonton reports that approximately between
10% and 20% of the variance in scientific achievement can be attributed to genetic
influence. To put this in context by converting to effect size metrics, Simonton sug-
gests these are medium to large effect sizes in the social sciences. There is evidence,
therefore, that scientific talent and achievement are partially attributable to genetic
influence. More direct twin-studies and behavioral genetic research, however, needs
to be conducted to confirm this conclusion.
My general conceptual–theoretical argument for how forces of nature and nur-
ture interact to create scientific interest, talent, and achievement rests on evolutionary
developmental processes involving genetic and epigenetic influence. The fundamen-
tal assumption of evolutionary development (evo-devo) is phenotypic traits develop
always from an interconnected influence of biological and environmental forces, the
most important of which are how, when, and where genes get expressed. The unique
and incomparable genotype each of us is born with is not the end-point but the start-
ing point of gene expression. Genes do not operate in a vacuum but always operate in
a particular context and environment. Genes get turned off by many different things,
and our experiences and environmental exposure, starting in the womb, are among
the off-switches. More specifically, methyl-groups tag the double-helix by attaching
to C and G nucleotides, and different patterns of tags turn off a gene or leave it on.
The incredible fact is that these tags are determined by environmental events such as
diet, drinking, and even exercise (Nakajima et al., 2010; Watters, 2006; Weaver et al.,
2004). Moreover, there is much evidence to support the fact that genetic influence
gets expressed only when very particular and sometimes extreme environmental con-
ditions are met (Caspi et al., 2003; Moffitt, Caspi, & Rutter, 2005; Wilhelm et al.,
2006). In short, experience (nurture) shapes the nature of scientific talent, but we need
more longitudinal-biological investigations into how scientific talent emerges over the
course of a lifetime. There have been, however, numerous longitudinal investigations
into scientific talent, the topic we turn to next.
Developmental studies of scientific talent and eminence
An important question for developmental psychologists of science is: How do we
identify latent and budding scientific talent at a relatively young age? One answer
begins with distinguishing two distinct ways of identifying talent: intrinsic and
extrinsic. Intrinsic talent identification stems from within the individual. The person
recognizes their own talent and ability and has a strong desire to express and develop
that ability and interest. Knowing one wants to be a scientist at an early age predicts
scientific achievement later in life (Eiduson & Beckman, 1973; Farmer, Wardrop, &
Rotella, 1999; Feist, 2006a, 2006c; Gould, Weeks, & Evans, 2003; Lehman, 1960,
1966; Schoon, 2001). The quintessential form of intrinsic talent recognition comes
in the form of an epiphany, the so-called “crystallizing experience,” wherein a person
realizes in one sudden insight their career path (Cameron, Mills, & Heinzen, 1995;
Freeman, 1999; Gardner, 1993). Extrinsic talent identification, however, occurs
when someone else – a parent, teacher, or coach – recognizes the talent and becomes
interested in developing and perfecting that talent. Indeed, there are many formal
avenues for identifying scientific talent at an early age, namely science fairs and science-
86. Psychometric Studies 67
Intellectual talent searches began with Terman’s study in the 1920s for students in
California with IQs at 140 and above (Terman, 1925). The intriguing finding from
the Terman study of highly intelligent students is that while quite successful and well
educated, very few obtained high levels of creative achievements over the course of
their lives (Holahan, Sears, & Cronbach, 1995; Terman, 1925, 1954). Indeed, the
only two who went on to win a Nobel Prize were tested by Terman but not selected –
they did not have IQs above 140. This result supports the “threshold hypothesis” –
namely that IQ above a certain threshold (often cited as around 120) adds no predic-
tive value to creative outcomes compared with being below the threshold.
The oldest science talent search began in 1942 and was known as the Westinghouse
Science Fair (Berger, 1994). The competition was in fact organized and run by a
nonprofit organization, Science Talent Search. In 1998, Intel became the underwriter
of the competition, and it is currently known as the Intel Science Talent Search.
Approximately 3,000 high school students apply each year, 300 of whom become
semifinalists and 40 of whom become finalists. These top students do in fact go on
to become some of our most distinguished scientists in the next generation (Berger,
1994; Feist, 2006b; Subotnik & Steiner, 1994). I should point out, however, that
attrition from science among even these highly talented students is significantly
greater for female than male finalists (Feist, 2006a; Subotnik & Steiner, 1994; cf.
Webb, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2002). Other factors besides talent are involved in
whether one stays in a science career. I should also point out, however, that “leaving
science” does not mean leaving high-powered professions for young, talented women.
A majority of them move into the medical professions (Fadigan & Hammrich, 2004;
A rather different outcome concerning the threshold hypothesis has occurred from
another large-scale longitudinal study of precocious and rare intellectual talent. This
study of mathematically precocious youth (being in the top 1% on the GRE quan-
titative test scores before one’s 13th birthday) was begun by Julian Stanley in the
1970s and continues under the guidance of Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski.
This longitudinal investigation has revealed that when intellectually talented youth
are identified at an early age, they are likely to go on to attend highly selective
universities, obtain advanced degrees, and then to follow very successful and some-
times even eminent and creative careers (Kell, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2013; Lubinski
et al., 2006; Robertson, Smeets, Lubinski, & Benbow 2010; Stanley, 1988; Stanley,
Keating, & Fox, 1974; Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009; Webb, Lubinski, & Benbow,
2002). Recently, these researchers have reported evidence that the variation within
this highly selective group (top 1%) has a strong predictive relationship not only with
degrees and prestige of school attended, but also with creative achievements such as
publications and citations (Kell et al., 2013; Robertson et al., 2010).
Similarly, and counter to the threshold hypothesis, Robertson et al. (2010) reported
that even within the top 1% of talent for math at age 13 (390 on quantitative
SAT) there are clear differences in educational and career outcomes between those
in the bottom of the top 1% (1 in 100) and those in the top of the top 1% (1 in
10,000). There is no plateau threshold. For example, compared with those who scored
450 on the SAT at age 13 (top 1%), those who scored 700 (top .01%) were nearly eight
times more likely to earn tenure in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
(STEM) departments ranked in the top 50 and nearly three times more likely to have
earned a doctorate.
87. 68 Gregory J. Feist
Similarly Kell et al. (2013; and Chapter 19) reported distinct regions of educational
and career achievement based on the relative strength of the verbal compared with
quantitative skills prior to age 13. Here, however, they selected a truly rare group:
those who scored either 700 or above on quantitative and/or 640 or above on verbal
prior to age 13. This pattern happens in only 1 in 100 in the top 1% (that is, 1 in
10,000 or .001%) of the population! By their late 30s, these erstwhile precocious
youth had gravitated to the upper echelons of careers that most closely matched their
relative top talent. For those who scored 700 or above on math, they pursued STEM
careers (inorganic-thing-oriented careers), whereas those whose profiles tipped the
scale toward verbal ability were more likely to end up in arts and humanities careers
Given the evidence both for and against the threshold hypothesis, there is a need
for more empirical investigation to resolve the debate. Some have argued the differ-
ence comes about because of the differing criteria for “top” – with Terman’s sample
being 1 in 100 and the SMPY sample being both 1 in 100 and 1 in 10,000. Moreover,
there is recent neuroscientific evidence upholding the threshold hypothesis, with dif-
ferences in the neurometabolite N-acetyl-aspartate acting as a moderating threshold
in the relationship between intelligence and creativity (Jung et al., 2009). But further
research on this question is needed before it will be more definitively resolved.
Talent and achievement develop in the pyramidal fashion as outlined above, with tal-
ent and training scaffolding each other throughout the lifetime. These different talents
guide budding scientists to develop and train those skill sets that match their talent.
More specific than general mathematical and scientific talent, however, is talent in spe-
cific domains of science, such as physical, biological, or social science. For instance,
the quantitatively and mechanically inclined will gravitate toward math, physical sci-
ence, and engineering, whereas the more verbally and socially inclined will gravitate
toward the social sciences (Kell et al., 2013; Lippa, 1998; Prediger, 1982; Wai et al.,
2009). Again, talent and training interleave through development to create scientific
achievement, talent, and creativity.
Another big question for developmental psychologists of science concerns how sci-
entific productivity changes over the course of a career. Traditionally, the findings have
converged on the conclusion that the relationship between age and productivity in sci-
ence (and other professions) is roughly described by an inverted-U (Bayer & Dutton,
1977; Dennis, 1956, 1966; Diamond, 1986; Over, 1982, 1989; Simonton, 1988a,
1988b, 1991). Further, once controls are made for different ways of operationalizing
output, the curve peaks around 20 years into one’s career, usually in one’s early 40s. To
model this relationship graphically, Simonton has developed one of his better-known
equations, with the peak occurring roughly 20 years into one’s career and thereafter
slowly declining (Simonton, 1988b). However, it does peak somewhat differently for
various disciplines (earlier in math and physics, later in biology and geology).
Recently, however, the literature on age and scientific productivity has begun to
show cohort differences to this traditional curvilinear pattern. In general, research on
the topic of age and productivity published since 2000 has reported not so much a
decline after midcareer, but either a leveling off or a decline followed by a second rise –
that is, a cubic rather than curvilinear relationship (Feist, 2006a; Gingras, Larivi`ere,
Macaluso, & Robitaille, 2008; Joy, 2006; Kyvik & Olsen, 2008; Stroebe, 2010). For
example, Kyvik and Olsen (2008) reported age and publication relationships for three
time periods at Norwegian universities: 1979–1981, 1989–1991, and 1998–2000.
88. Psychometric Studies 69
The 1979–1981 time period showed the classic curvilinear peak 20 years into one’s
career, followed by a linear decline to end of career. The 1989–1991 analysis showed
a cubic relationship, with a second peak occurring at the end of one’s career. The
1998–2000 time period showed an early career rise followed by a slight increase until
the end of one’s career.
A related developmental question concerns whether producing works early in life
predicts later levels of productivity. The consensus is that early levels of high produc-
tivity do regularly predict continued levels of high productivity across one’s lifetime
(Bayer & Dutton, 1977; Diamond, 1986; Joy, 2006; Simonton, 1988a, 1991). Those
who are prolific early in their careers also tend to continue to be productive for the
longest periods of time. This finding is one substantiation of Merton’s notion of cumu-
lative advantage or the Matthew Effect (Merton, 1968).
Lastly, there is also the question of whether the age at which one’s talent for science
is first expressed predicts lifetime achievement in science. Regarding age of recog-
nized talent, Feist (2006a; cf. Cameron et al., 1995; Freeman, 199; Gardner, 1993)
predicted that in a sample of NAS members, age of talent should predict age of pub-
lishing and obtaining the Ph.D., which in turn should predict productivity and impact.
Results showed that the four precocity variables were modestly positively correlated
with age of first publication, which is an intermediate variable between precocity and
achievement. In other words, the younger NAS members were when they and others
recognized their scientific talent, when they wanted to be a scientist, and when they
first conducted scientific research, the younger they were when they published their
first paper. Age of first publication in turn predicted total publication rate over the
lifetime, meaning the earlier one publishes, the more productive one will be. This pat-
tern of relationships from precocity to age of first publication to lifetime productivity
implies an indirect connection between precocity and publication rate.
Cognitive studies of scientific talent
Scientific thinking in general and creative thinking in science in particular involves
specific cognitive strategies and processes. The literature on creative scientific problem
solving has focused on four main cognitive strategies or heuristics: analogy, metaphor,
visualization, and ideational fluency/looseness of associations.
Analogy is a cognitive strategy that involves seeing how something new (target) is
like something old (source). In general, it is one of the more common and automatic
ways the brain takes sensory experience and gives meaning to experience. In the history
of cognitive science, the concept of analogy and metaphor has been one of the more
central mechanisms used to answer the question of how new knowledge is possible.
Fauconnier and Turner (2002, p. 14) argued that analogy is “a powerful engine of
discovery, for the scientist, the mathematician, the artist, and the child.”
There are many case studies of how analogy plays a major role in the history of sci-
ence. For example, one of the more famous analogies was Darwin’s analogy between
the branching of a tree and evolution (Gruber, 1981). Another foundational analogy
used by Darwin was the comparison between natural selection and artificial selection
seen in human breeding of plants and animals. Other analyses of historical cases also
consistently shows the most creative and eminent scientists discovering useful analo-
gies to solve problems (Gentner & Jeziorski, 1989; Gorman, 1995; Nersessian, 1992,
2002; Osbeck, Nersessian, Malone, & Newstetter, 2011; Spranzi, 2004). Nersessian
89. 70 Gregory J. Feist
(1992, 2002), for example, observed that James Clerk Maxwell used analogies iter-
atively, that is, he constantly modified them to fit his growing understanding of the
constraints of the target domain. Similarly, Gorman (1992) demonstrated that Alexan-
der Graham Bell deliberately “followed the analogy of nature” and used the human ear
as a mental model for his telephone; like Maxwell, he was able to modify this analogy
as he learned more about his target domain.
There is a well-developed psychometric literature on the importance of analogy
and metaphor in scientific problem solving and creativity (Clement, 1989; DeCruz &
DeSmet, 2010; De Mey, 1989; K. Dunbar, 1995, 1997; Gentner, Holyoak, &
Kokinov, 2001; Holyoak & Thagard, 1995; John-Steiner, 1985; Miller, 1996; Ners-
essian, 1992, 2002). The consensual conclusion from this literature is that analogy
is a crucial problem-solving heuristic that allows scientists to apply schemas, models,
and mental maps from known to unknown domains in order to solve problems. The
success and richness of the analogy depend on how deep the similarity is between old
and new. Associations no doubt play a critical role in analogical thinking, with the
similarity being touched off via an association. In science, these analogies also often
serve as the foundation for hypotheses.
Analogy often involves translating ideas from one domain to another. For instance,
S. Carey and Spelke (1994) argued that conceptual change often takes place through
the successful use of analogy and thought experiment and offered examples from the
history of science (Duhem, T. Kuhn, Maxwell, and so on). Translating models between
the mathematical domain and objects (physics), people (psychology), and animals
(biology) has been an especially useful analogy heuristic in solving many problems
in the history of science.
Metaphor is closely related to analogy in that it, too, involves applying similarity
from an old source to a new target, and in this sense many metaphors are analogies.
The essence of metaphor is an “as if” comparison – I am going to think about X as
if it were Y. Some scholars, in fact, have argued that metaphor is the broader of the
two concepts insofar as it can be used in both explanatory-predictive and expressive-
affective contexts, whereas analogy is usually limited to the former (Gentner, Bowdle,
Wolff, & Boronat, 2001). By applying one phrase or idea to another different one that
is not literally the same, we again make the unknown known. As such psycholinguists
have made clear, metaphors are so ubiquitous that we often do not even recognize the
metaphorical nature of much of our thought (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Pinker, 1997).
It is no surprise, therefore, that science is replete with metaphors. Indeed, most
major scientific insights have involved some kind of analogical metaphor (Al-Zahrani,
2008; R. Dunbar, 1995; Gruber, 1981; Kuhn, 1979; Miller, 1996; Osbeck et al.,
2011). R. Dunbar (1995), for example, has pointed out that metaphorical use of lan-
guage is very common in particle physics and evolutionary biology. For example, parti-
cle physicists refer to the different kinds of quarks as “top,” “down,” “bottom,” “up,”
“charmed,” and “strange.” Such everyday common words could hardly be more liter-
ally removed from the abstract, unobserved, and probably unobservable quarks, and
yet that is part of the joke or pun of the inventors of these terms. Mathematicians also
commonly refer to equations as “beautiful,” or “well behaved.” Evolutionary biology
is also littered with such metaphors: “the selfish gene,” “kamikaze sperm hypothesis,”
or the “red-queen hypothesis” (from Alice in Wonderland), just to name a few.
Metaphor and analogy are so common in science precisely because they are so use-
ful to hypothesis and theory formation, thought experiments, creativity, and problem
90. Psychometric Studies 71
solving. They provide useful constraints to solutions to problems by focusing strate-
gies and preventing random and fruitless searches for a solution. Scientists, and espe-
cially the best scientists, tend to use them more readily than novices and thereby go
down fewer dead ends when trying to solve a problem (Larkin, McDermott, Simon, &
Simon, 1980; McReynolds, 1990). Of course, analogies and metaphors offer such cog-
nitive advantage only if they are appropriate and useful. Often the more creative scien-
tists have a feel (that is, an intuition) for a good and productive analogy or metaphor.
When they are useful, they make problem solving much more efficient than it would
A third cognitive strategy or heuristic used in, but not unique to, scientific thought
is visual imagery (Cheng & Simon, 1995; Finke, 1993; Finke, Ward, & Smith, 1992;
Gruber, 1981; Kozhevnikov, Kozhevnikov, Yu, & Blazhenkova, 2013; Larkin et al.,
1980; Larkin & Simon, 1987; Miller, 1989, 1996; Shepard, 1978). The historian
of science Arthur I. Miller (1996) argues in Insights of Genius that visual imagery
plays an important role in scientific creativity (e.g., Einstein’s thought experiments)
and in scientific advance (cf. Dreistadt, 1974; Gleick, 1992; Greene, 1999). Cheng
(1999), for example, demonstrated the crucial role that visual diagrams play in learning
mathematical and scientific concepts. Related to visual imagery, spatial reasoning – the
ability to think and solve problems in three-dimensional space – is a strong predictor
of scientific and mathematical ability (Baker, 1985; Cooper, 2000; Gardner, 1983;
Newcombe, 2007; Piburn, 1980; Reuhkala, 2001; Shea, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2001).
Supporting the nature and nurture model of career influence, evidence suggests that
both baseline differences and situational fluctuations in androgen levels directly and
indirectly affect spatial ability, which in turn affects interest and ability in math and
science (Berenbaum & Resnick, 2007).
The final cognitive component of scientific creativity involves generativity, fluency,
and overinclusive association networks as well as the ability to distinguish and select
the good ideas from the bad. Creativity is not, as many think, merely novel and orig-
inal thought, but it also has to provide useful and adaptive solutions to problems
(Amabile, 1996; Feist, 1998; Sternberg, 1988). In addition to the cognitive processes
already discussed (analogy, metaphor, and visualization), a number of cognitive traits
cluster around creative ability: remote and loose associations, overinclusive and disin-
hibited thinking (reduced latent inhibition), fluency, flexibility, novelty, and originality.
Sarnoff Mednick’s (1962) theory of remote associations underscores the associational
richness of creative thinkers. J. P. Guilford (1956) built a theory of creativity around
ideational fluency, flexibility, and originality, arguing that creative thinking results from
having many ideas (fluency) that cross boundaries and categories (flexibility) and that
are novel and original. Similarly, Eysenck (1995) proposed that the defining cogni-
tive characteristic of highly creative people in general and scientists in particular is
their overinclusive and disinhibited thinking. In other words, creative people auto-
matically have a wider range of associations and have difficulty inhibiting associations
and focusing on a narrow range of relevant stimuli. For this reason, they score high in
what Eysenck called “psychoticism.”
Finally, Simonton, borrowing from Campbell, has put forth a theory of creativ-
ity that posits that ideational and associational fluency and selective retention are the
foundation for all creative thought. Creative thinkers produce a lot of ideas, but then
are also gifted at selecting the best ideas – a two-stage process Campbell and Simonton
have dubbed the “blind variation and selective retention” (BVSR) model of creativity
91. 72 Gregory J. Feist
(Simonton, 1988b). Because of misunderstandings of the term “blind,” Simonton has
recently reformulated his two-stage theory to have three quantifiable solution com-
ponents: originality, usefulness, and surprisingness – each of which can take a value
between 0 and 1 (Simonton, 2011, 2012). In this model, Simonton conceptualizes
“sightedness” (i.e., the opposite of “blindness”) as existing on a continuum rather
than as discrete categories. Moreover, these components are multiplicative rather than
additive, meaning that if any one component is zero, its product probability is neces-
sarily zero (Simonton, 2012). Additionally, as any one component approaches unity,
the creativity product term increases dramatically. This model fits very well the inher-
ently positively skewed distribution seen in all creative production (e.g., publications,
compositions) whereby only a few individuals produce most of the creative works in
a given field.
There is too much psychometric evidence supporting the essence of these cognitive
theories of creativity to review here, but let me simply point the interested reader in
the direction of a few classic and recent empirical investigations into the ideational
fluency/generativity, and overinclusive associations of creative people. Because
Guilford’s model of the creative intellect became the foundation for numerous psy-
chometric measures of creativity – the best known of which were Torrance’s (1963,
1974) Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) and Wallach and Kogan’s (1965) Tests of
Creativity – divergent thinking in general and fluency of idea production in particu-
lar have become central tenets of psychometric assessments of creative thinking, and
the general psychometric qualities (reliability and validity) are quite solid (Kim, 2006;
Runco, 2010; Treffinger, 1985). Here, I will only briefly cite some of the recent neu-
roscientific evidence supporting his model, which has begun to uncover neurological
networks in the parietal and frontal lobes that support this two-stage (generativity
and selection) model of creative thought in general, and there is no reason to believe
scientific creativity operates any differently (Jung & Haier, 2007; Jung et al., 2013).
Personality studies of scientific interest, talent, and eminence
Personality traits function to lower thresholds for particular behaviors, including scien-
tific interest and talent (Feist, 2006c, 2010). The first step toward being a scientist and
having talent for science is simply having an interest in one form of science or another.
Not only do certain traits lower thresholds for scientific interest, but a somewhat dif-
ferent pattern of traits also lowers thresholds for scientific creativity and eminence.
Scientific interest and personality In a meta-analytic review of which personality traits
make interest and creativity in science more likely, Feist (1998) analyzed effect sizes
between personality – converted to Big Five dimensions – and interest in science from
26 published papers between 1950 and 1998. The two strongest effect sizes (medium
in magnitude) were for the positive and negative poles of conscientiousness. Being
high in conscientiousness consists of scales and items such as careful, cautious, consci-
entious, fastidious, and self-controlled, whereas being low in conscientiousness con-
sists of only two scales/items, namely, direct expression of needs and psychopathic
deviance. Although the low conscientiousness dimension comprised only five com-
parisons, it is clear that relative to nonscientists, scientists are roughly a half a standard
deviation higher on conscientiousness and controlling of impulses. In addition, low
openness to experience and introversion each had a median relationship with interest in
92. Psychometric Studies 73
science. Moreover, examining the effect sizes of the two subcomponents of extraver-
sion separately (confidence and sociability), the confidence component had a small
positive effect, and the sociability component a near-zero negative effect. In addition,
the dispositional cognitive trait, need for cognition, is a predictor of interest in sci-
ence (Feist, 2012). Need for cognition involves a need to understand the world and
to structure situations in a meaningful and integrated way. In short, in addition to the
dispositional need for cognition, the Big Five dimensions of openness, confidence/
dominance (E), introversion, conscientiousness, and discipline appear to be the per-
sonality factors that make scientific interest most likely (cf. Batey & Furnham, 2006;
More specific than general interest in science, I also contend that one’s preference
and orientation toward people or things plays a crucial role in the kind of science that
one becomes interested in, especially physical or social science (cf. Wilson & Jackson,
1994). The foundation for the People–Thing orientation comes from the vocational
interest literature. Prediger (1982) was the first to modify Holland’s hexagonal model
of vocational interests onto two bipolar dimensions: People–Things and Data–Ideas.
The “People” end of the dimension is mapped onto Holland’s “Social” career types,
whereas the “Thing” end of the dimension is mapped onto “Realistic” career types.
According to Holland, the social career type prefers occupations that involve inform-
ing, training, enlightening other people. The realistic career type, on the other hand,
prefers careers that involve manipulating things, machines, objects, tools, and animals
(Holland, 1992; Lippa, 1998; Prediger, 1982; Wilson & Jackson, 1994).
Supporting this domain-specific view of scientific interest, Simon Baron-Cohen and
colleagues have found that engineers, mathematicians, and physical scientists score
much higher on measures of high functioning autism (Asperger’s syndrome) than
nonscientists, and that physical scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are higher
on nonclinical measures of autism than social scientists. In other words, physical sci-
entists often have temperaments that orient them away from the social and toward the
inanimate – their interest and ability in science are then just one expression of this ori-
entation. Such an orientation in one sense is an extreme form of introversion, that is, it
involves a lack of social interest and a not well-developed sense of theory of mind. Of
course, autism and Asperger’s syndrome are not simply extreme forms of introversion
but rather are their own category of social disorder. Nevertheless there are important
parallels between Asperger’s and introversion that warrant them being conceptualized
as aspects of a less social personality orientation. Moreover, autistic children are more
than twice as likely as nonautistic children to have a father or grandfather who was
an engineer (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001; Baron-
Cohen, Wheelwright, Stone, & Rutherford, 1999; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Stott,
Bolton, & Goodyer, 1997; Baron-Cohen et al., 1998; Rawlings & Locarnini, 2008).
Scientific creativity and eminence and personality The meta-analysis conducted by
Feist (1998) also addressed the question of which traits make creativity and emi-
nence in science more likely and what their magnitude of effect was. The traits can
be arranged into three psychologically meaningful categories: cognitive, motivational,
First, a cluster of cognitive personality traits is consistently associated with scientific
eminence and creativity. Cognitive personality traits are dispositions involving cogni-
tive style and strategies, such as being open or flexible in thought or behavior and
93. 74 Gregory J. Feist
having a need for cognition. A consistent finding in the personality and creativity in
science literature has been that creative and eminent scientists tend to be more open
to experience and more flexible in thought than less creative and eminent scientists.
Many of these findings stem from data on the flexibility and tolerance scales of the
California Psychological Inventory (Feist & Barron, 2003; Garwood, 1964; Gough,
1961; Helson, 1971; Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Parloff & Datta, 1965). The flex-
ibility (CPI) scale, for instance, taps into flexibility and adaptability of thought and
behavior as well as the preference for change and novelty (Gough, 1987). Moreover,
the loose and bizarre associations found in moderate to high levels of psychoticism
and schizotypy are associated with higher levels of creativity in science (Rawlings &
Second, a cluster of motivational personality traits is associated with scientific cre-
ativity and eminence. The most eminent and creative scientists also tend to be more
driven, ambitious, and achievement oriented than their less eminent peers (Trost,
2000). Busse and Mansfield (1984), for instance, studied the personality character-
istics of 196 biologists, 201 chemists, and 171 physicists, and commitment to work
(i.e., “need to concentrate intensively over long periods of time on one’s work”) was
the strongest predictor of productivity (i.e., publication quantity) even when holding
age and professional age constant. Of course, drive and ambition are also predictive
of success in other fields, but it is nevertheless important to demonstrate its effect in
science as well. Helmreich, Spence, Beane, Lucker, and Matthews (1980) studied a
group of 196 academic psychologists and found that different components of achieve-
ment and drive had different relationships with objective measures of attainment (i.e.,
publications and citations). With a self-report measure, they assessed three different
aspects of achievement: “mastery” preferring challenging and difficult tasks; “work”
enjoying working hard; and “competitiveness” liking interpersonal competition and
bettering others. According to Amabile’s (1996) well-known typology, the first two
measures could be classified as “intrinsic motives” and the last measure could be an
“extrinsic motive.” Helmreich, Spence, and Pred (1988) found that mastery and work
were positively related to both publication and citation totals, whereas competitive-
ness was positively related to publications but negatively related to citations. Being
intrinsically motivated (mastery and work) appears to increase one’s productivity and
positive evaluation by peers (citations), whereas wanting to be superior to peers leads
to an increased productivity, and yet a lower positive evaluation by peers. The inference
here is that being driven by the need for superiority may backfire in terms of having
an impact on the field. Indeed, in a further analysis of the male psychologists in their
1980 data set, Helmreich et al. (1988) found that achievement striving was positively
related to both citation and publication counts, whereas impatience/irritability was
related to neither publications nor citations.
Third, a cluster of social traits are associated with scientific creativity and eminence.
In the highly competitive world of science, especially big science, where the most pro-
ductive and influential scientists continue to be rewarded with more and more of the
resources, success is more likely for those who thrive in competitive environments,
that is for those who are dominant, arrogant, hostile, and self-confident. For example,
Van Zelst and Kerr (1954) collected personality self-descriptions on 514 technical and
scientific personnel from a research foundation and a university. Holding age constant,
they reported significant partial correlations between productivity and describing one-
self as “argumentative,” “assertive,” and “self-confident.” In one of the few studies
94. Psychometric Studies 75
to examine female scientists, Bachtold and Werner (1972) administered Cattell’s
16 Personality Factor to 146 women scientists and found that they were significantly
different from women in general on nine of the 16 scales, including dominance (Factor
E) and self-confidence (Factor O). Similarly, Feist (1993) reported a structural equa-
tion model of scientific eminence in which the path between observer-rated hostility
and eminence was direct, and the path between arrogant working style and eminence
was indirect but significant.
The scientific elite also tend to be more aloof, asocial, and introverted than their
less creative peers. In a classic study concerning the creative person in science, Roe
(1952, 1953) found that creative scientists were more achievement oriented and less
affiliative than less creative scientists. In another seminal study of the scientific per-
sonality, Eiduson (1962) found that scientists were independent, curious, sensitive,
intelligent, emotionally invested in intellectual work, and relatively happy. Similarly,
Chambers (1964) reported that creative psychologists and chemists were markedly
more dominant, ambitious, and self-sufficient, and had more initiative than their less
creative peers. Helson (1971) compared creative female mathematicians with less cre-
ative female mathematicians, matched on IQ. Observers blindly rated the former as
having more “unconventional thought processes,” as being more “rebellious and non-
conforming,” and as being less likely to judge “self and others in conventional terms.”
Finally, Wilson and Jackson (1994) reported that both male and female physicists were
more introverted and conscientious than nonscientist controls.
Cognitive and social personality traits also explain variance in scientific creativity
over and above intelligence alone. For instance, Feist and Barron (2003) examined
personality, intellect, potential, and creative achievement in a 44-year longitudinal
study. Results showed that observer-rated Potential and Intellect at age 27 predicted
Lifetime Creativity at age 72, and yet personality variables (such as Tolerance and Psy-
chological Mindedness) explained up to 20% of the variance over and above Poten-
tial and Intellect. Specifically, two measures of personality – California Psychological
Inventory scales of Tolerance and Psychological Mindedness – resulted in the 20%
increase in variance explained over and above Potential and Intellect. The more tol-
erant and psychologically minded the student was, the more likely they were to make
creative achievements over their lifetime.
To summarize the distinguishing traits of creative scientists: They are generally more
open and flexible, driven, and ambitious, and although they tend to be relatively aso-
cial, when they do interact with others, they tend to be somewhat prone to arrogance,
self-confidence, and hostility.
Social–cultural studies of scientific talent
How schools teach science has a lot to do with how much students become interested
in and develop talent for science (Heller, 2007). A few principles of effective science
education have converged on how to instill and maintain interest in science among
students, gifted students in particular (who are in fact most likely to become our next
generation of scientists).
Three effective teaching strategies for instilling interest in and motivation for sci-
ence are regulated learning, the Socratic method, and open-inquiry learning. In
regulated learning, students are guided by metacognition, are motivated to learn,
and monitor their progress against a standard (Boekaerts & Corno, 2005; Perry,
95. 76 Gregory J. Feist
Phillips, & Hutchinson, 2006; Zimmerman, 2002). Moreover, regulated learners view
their intelligence as incremental and open to change rather than fixed and unchange-
able (Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006). In other words, they
are less likely to say “I am not smart enough for this problem” when confronting
an apparently intractable problem. Gifted and high-IQ students tend to have more
self-regulation ability than nongifted or average IQ students (Calero, Garc´ıa-Mart´ın,
Jim´enez, Kaz´en, & Araque, 2007; Chan, 1996).
In open-inquiry learning, the student begins with a question posed by the teacher
rather than an answer (Yoon, 2009). Moreover, the answer is not given, but has to be
discovered anew by the student. Inquiry learning can be either guided by the teacher or
left more open for the student to uncover. Open-inquiry learning appears to increase
interest in science (Yoon, 2009).
Dialectical dialogue and Socratic teaching also facilitate scientific inquiry among
gifted students (Lim, 2004). The Socratic method involves two people (most often a
teacher and a student) engaging in a debate, usually from differing points of view. The
teacher will ask probing questions that flesh out underlying contradictions or fallacies
in the student’s views and thereby leading the student to discard contradictory beliefs.
In practice, the Socratic method is difficult and requires well-trained teachers.
Parental careers impact children’s interest in and talent for science (Eccles, 1994;
Eiduson, 1962; Feist, 1991; Heller, 2007; Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Maple &
Stage, 1991). If one parent has a career in science or engineering the odds increase that
the child will also develop an interest in science. Eiduson (1962) reported that roughly
half of her participants said some older person was important in their developing and
maintaining an interest in science. Furthermore, Feist (1991) reported that 65% of
the elite biological and natural scientists in his sample reported having a significant
mentor in high school, and 80% reported having one in graduate school. In high
school, mentors tended to be either a teacher (29%) or a parent (26%), whereas in
graduate school, they were overwhelmingly one’s Ph.D. advisor (56%) or another
Werts and Watley (1972) demonstrated that the family environment can exert a
strong influence on choosing science as a career. They reported that college students
who won awards and were high achievers in science had fathers who were scientists.
Furthermore, a consistent and robust finding from the literature on father’s educa-
tion and occupation is that scientists overwhelmingly come from families of profes-
sional occupations and higher education (Berry, 1981; Chambers, 1964; Feist, 1991;
Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Roe, 1952; Zuckerman, 1977). Either directly or indi-
rectly, having well-educated parents familiar with and interested in science is predictive
of an interest in science.
Having an eminent mentor also appears to be a contributing factor in obtaining
eminence (John-Steiner, 1985; Simonton, 1992; Zuckerman, 1977). This finding has
been most clearly demonstrated in Harriet Zuckerman’s work with Nobel laureates.
One of her strongest findings concerned the “cumulative advantage” effect of those
young scientists who train under the scientific elite (i.e., Nobel Prize winners). They
produce more at an early stage in their careers, are more likely to produce works of
high impact, and are more likely to win the Nobel Prize themselves than those who
do not train under laureates (Zuckerman, 1977).
Another commonality between adolescent and adult elite scientists is that they tend
to be first- or second-generation American (cf. Berger, 1994; Feist, 2006b; Helson &
96. Psychometric Studies 77
Crutchfield, 1970; Lubinski et al., 2006; Simonton, 1988b). Families who have
recently come to the shores of the U.S. may well foster a particular set of values that
encourages and maybe even demands high-level achievement, whether it be in science,
medicine, or business. As suggested by classic work in the sociology of science, an inter-
esting speculation on this phenomenon is that science may be more meritocratic than
most other career paths, and therefore talent and achievement in and of themselves are
more likely to be recognized and rewarded (see Cole & Cole, 1973; Merton, 1973).
Simonton (1988b) suggested that living in multiple cultures increases one’s exposure
to diverse ideas making rich combinations of ideas more likely (see Chapter 18).
Summary and Future Directions
The findings from the empirical psychology of science – psychometric investigations
in particular – have taught us much about the nature of scientific talent, creativity, and
eminence over the last 50 years. In general, we know that interest in and talent for
science are molded by a complex interplay between biological, environmental-social,
cognitive, and temperamental forces.
More specifically, we know that the foundation for cognitive aptitude necessary for
science is influenced by genetic and epigenetic processes, and that the phenotypic
expression of intellectual talent results from the interaction of biology and experi-
ence. Epigenetic influence is especially important in the conclusion that biology and
experience work together in the phenotypic expression of talent. Multiple long-term
investigations of intellectual, mathematical, and scientific talent reveal the power of
early identification and expression of talent and aptitude, and how these early hints
can strongly foreshadow later achievement and eminence in science. The cognitive
processes of analogy, metaphor, visualization, and fluency and looseness of idea gen-
eration are each important factors in scientific talent, creativity, and eminence. More-
over, particular clusters of personality traits lower behavioral thresholds for interest in,
and talent for, science, with openness to experience being the single strongest effect
for both interest and talent in science. Finally, education, parents, mentors, and immi-
grant status each shape and mold scientific aptitude and interest in ways that make
scientific achievement more likely.
But there is a long way to go – many questions are still unanswered or only partially
answered. What dynamic brain processes are involved in scientific thinking and prob-
lem solving, and how do these differ from nonscientific thinking and problem solving?
How do we explain the contradictory evidence for a threshold theory of intelligence
and creative achievement? To what extent are the neuro-biological foundations for
interest in, and talent for, science plastic and malleable from environmental and epige-
netic factors? To what extent is interest in the physical, biological, and social sciences
channeled through distinct domains of intellectual aptitude and talent? Can visual,
analogical, and metaphorical thinking be taught to facilitate creative problem solving
in science? One of the more intractable questions in scientific interest and talent con-
cerns the gender disparity seen in the physical sciences. Understanding the causes of
such a disparity would be a first step toward eliminating them. Once we have a more
complete empirical picture of the psychology of scientific talent and eminence, we can
move forward with building a scientifically sound theoretical model – from genetic to
cultural forces – in order to understand more fully the scientific mind at its best.
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Historiometric Studies of Genius
Dean Keith Simonton
As seen in the preceding chapters (Chapters 1–4), researchers can examine genius
from multiple perspectives. These perspectives can be distinguished in several different
ways (Simonton, 1999). To start, we can distinguish between qualitative and quan-
titative approaches (Simonton, 2003b). Historiography, psychobiography, and inter-
views tend to be qualitative, whereas psychometrics is necessarily quantitative – after
all, the Greek root “metrics” means “measure.” Another distinction entails whether
the approach tends to focus on the single case or multiple cases – on one genius
or many. Psychobiographers invariably focus on a particular genius, whereas psycho-
metricians must necessarily assess multiple cases. The computation of descriptive and
correlational statistics would be impossible otherwise. Interviews most often apply to
multiple cases in order to discern the common patterns. Yet historiography can go
either way. Clearly, the biographer concentrates on a single case, but sometimes the
historian adopts the comparative perspective. The most famous example of the latter
is Plutarch’s classic Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in which parallels are often
explicitly drawn between an ancient Greek and a later Roman – such as the great
orators Demosthenes and Cicero, respectively.
This last example illustrates another contrast between the perspectives – how his-
toric are the cases. Historians and psychobiographers concentrate on the big names of
history. Thomas Carlyle’s (1841) On Heroes included essays on Dante, William Shake-
speare, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oliver Cromwell,
Napoleon, Martin Luther, John Knox, and the Prophet Muhammad. Sigmund Freud
(1910/1964) devoted his first psychobiography to Leonardo da Vinci, while Erik
Erikson contributed psychobiographies on Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi
(Erikson, 1951, 1958). Because these figures were all deceased at the time that they
became subject to discussion, their reputations were assured. No “false positives”
could be among them.
In contrast, interviews and psychometric assessments require living, breathing peo-
ple who can answer questions and take tests, but whose posthumous eminence is by
no means guaranteed. Moreover, even if contemporary fame predicts later distinction,
the difficulties of recruiting the eminent for participation in scientific research often
become prohibitive. This problem is especially conspicuous in the case of political and
The Wiley Handbook of Genius, First Edition. Edited by Dean Keith Simonton.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
107. 88 Dean Keith Simonton
military leaders who would most likely not risk their current reputations by exposing
themselves to psychological assessments. Hence, direct studies tend to focus on emi-
nent creators, as described by Nakamura and Fajans (Chapter 3). On occasion, the lat-
ter investigations manage to recruit participants whose posthumous acclaim is ensured.
For instance, among the 64 eminent scientists who Anne Roe (1953) studied were
the Nobel laureates Luis W. Alvarez, Hermann J. Muller, John Howard Northrop,
Julian S. Schwinger, Linus Pauling, and Harold C. Urey. More dramatically, Zucker-
man’s (1977) interviews were confined exclusively to US science laureates. Yet these
investigations are relatively rare, and even in Roe’s classic study, the majority of her
participants will probably not be well known to posterity.
One final distinction is perhaps the most important from the perspective of a science
of genius: Are the investigator’s goals more idiographic or nomothetic? Idiographic
research is focused on the uniqueness of an individual genius, most often regard-
ing a distinctive characteristic or biographical act. An example is why Vincent Van
Gogh cut off part of one ear to give to a prostitute (Runyan, 1981) or why King
George III of Great Britain suffered bouts of insanity (Runyan, 1988). In compari-
son, nomothetic research endeavors to tease out the general laws of genius – gener-
alizations that transcend the life and work of any single genius. Rather than ask why
Van Gogh engaged in self-mutilation, we ask whether psychopathology is positively
associated with artistic genius, and if so, which particular syndromes. The latter ques-
tion presupposes that the researcher collects a sufficiently large sample of individuals
who vary appreciably in both creativity (from commercial to genius) and domain (sci-
entific as well as artistic) to determine whether a correspondence exists. Are artists
more likely to exhibit psychopathology relative to scientists? Among the artists, are
the genius-level creators more prone toward psychopathology than their less well-
known colleagues? Is the primary symptom depression or some other mental disorder?
These questions might be addressed using clinical interviews or psychometric measure-
ments. On the other hand, historiography and psychobiography are totally inappro-
priate for addressing nomothetic questions because these perspectives are singularly
However, one perspective has so far been missing from the discussion – the his-
toriometric. In terms of the distinctions just introduced, historiometry is nomothetic
rather than idiographic, quantitative rather than qualitative, multiple rather than single
case, studies the greatest geniuses in world history, most if not all being deceased at
the time of the investigation. Stated more formally, historiometry has been defined
as “a scientific discipline in which nomothetic hypotheses about human behavior
are tested by applying quantitative analyses to data concerning historical individu-
als” (Simonton, 1990, p. 3, italics removed). The term originates with Frederick
Woods (1909), who published a note in Science titled “A New Name for a New Sci-
ence.” There he defined historiometry somewhat less formally as a method where
“the facts of history of a personal nature have been subjected to statistical analysis
by some more or less objective method” (p. 703). In a later Science article titled
“Historiometry as an Exact Science,” Woods (1911) held that historiometrics would
make major contributions to the “psychology of genius” and “the rise and fall of
nations” (p. 568). Woods obviously had some rather ambitious plans for his new
The rest of this chapter will provide illustrations of the historiometric perspective
on genius, ending with a brief evaluative conclusion.
108. Historiometric Studies of Genius 89
Although the terms “historiometric” and “historiometry” were not invented until
1909, the practice actually dates long before that. In fact, Woods (1909) compiled a
list of studies to which the designation could be retrospectively assigned. The earliest
work on that list is Francis Galton’s (1869) Hereditary Genius, followed by such con-
tributions as Alphonse de Candole’s (1873) Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis
deux si`ecles, James McKeen Cattell’s (1903) “A Statistical Study of Eminent Men,”
Havelock Ellis’s (1904) A Study of British Genius, and Woods’ (1906) Mental and
Moral Heredity in Royalty. Yet the earliest bona fide historiometric study of genius
was published decades earlier than Galton’s work. The latter was a genuine historio-
metric investigation tucked away in Adolphe Quetelet’s (1835/1968) A Treatise on
Man published more than 30 years earlier. Hence, historiometry constitutes the oldest
quantitative and nomothetic approach to genius. Indeed, only traditional historiogra-
phy is older.
Historiometric research on genius is far too rich and complex to be easily summa-
rized in a single chapter. Fortunately, I have previously published extensive reviews (see
especially Simonton, 1984b, 2009a; Simonton & Ting, 2010). These reviews allow
me to provide the highlights of the historiometric perspective on genius. These high-
lights can be assigned to four categories: the developmental, differential, cognitive,
Developmental studies of genius
From the very beginning, historiometric inquiries examined genius from a develop-
mental perspective. Usually investigations concentrated on either early origins or adult
trajectories, although occasionally a researcher would examine the entire lifespan, from
birth to death (e.g., Raskin, 1936; Simonton, 1991b).
Early origins Galton’s (1869) classic directly addressed the question of whether
genius is born or made, coming down strongly in favor of a genetic basis (Simon-
ton, 2003a). This study has inspired subsequent research on what has become known
as the nature–nurture issue, an expression that Galton (1874) himself introduced into
the study of genius (e.g., Bowerman, 1947; Bramwell, 1948; Ellis, 1904; Post, 1994;
Simonton, 1983, 1984a). From the standpoint of familial relationships, it is clear that
geniuses tend to come from highly eminent families. Not only is the frequency of
appearance greater than any reasonable baseline, but the rates seem to follow the
expected genetic laws regarding relationship proximity (but see Chapter 14, for some
complications). At the same time, genetics cannot explain everything that is transferred
from one generation to the next. For instance, one study of intergenerational transfer
in 342 hereditary monarchs discovered that while intelligence and lifespan appeared
largely genetic, eminence and morality were governed more by role-modeling pro-
cesses (Simonton, 1983). Nurture often overrides nature.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of historiometric studies have focused on the
environmental factors involved with the emergence of genius. Indeed, shortly after
Galton (1869) published his argument for nature, Candolle (1873) offered the coun-
terargument, with special focus on familial and educational experiences. The literature
has become far too extensive to summarize in a paragraph or two, so instead I have
109. 90 Dean Keith Simonton
consolidated some representative findings in the following list of environmental factors
in the early development of genius:
Birth order Albert (1980); Bliss (1970); Bowerman (1947); Bullough,
Bullough, Voight, & Kluckhohn (1971); Clark & Rice (1982);
Ellis (1904); Goertzel, Goertzel, & Goertzel (1978);
Schubert, Wagner, & Schubert (1977); Simonton (1988b,
2008b); Stewart (1977); Sulloway (1996); Terry (1989);
Walberg, Rasher, & Parkerson (1980)
Traumatic events Berry (1981); Eisenstadt (1978); Goertzel et al. (1978);
Illingworth & Illingworth (1969); Martindale (1972); Post
(1994); Raskin (1936); Silverman (1974); Walberg et al.
(1980); Woodward (1974)
Socioeconomic class Berry (1981); Cox (1926); Ellis (1904); Moulin (1955); Raskin
(1936); Simonton (1976a)
Religion and/or ethnicity Bowerman (1947); Goertzel et al. (1978); Simonton (1986a)
Geographic origins Berry (1981); Bowerman (1947); Cattell (1910); Ellis (1904); P.
Gray (1983); Simonton (1977b); Woods (1911)
Mentors and role models Boring & Boring (1948); Rothenberg & Wyshak (2004);
Simonton (1977b, 1983, 1984a, 1992b); Walberg et al.
Special training Goertzel et al. (1978); Hayes (1989); Simonton (1986a, 1991b,
Formal education Bowerman (1947); Candolle (1873); Ellis (1904); Goertzel et al.
(1978); Moulin (1955); Raskin (1936); Simonton (1976a,
1984b, 1986a, 1992a)
Self-education Goertzel et al. (1978); Simonton (1984b)
Professional marginality Gieryn & Hirsh (1983); Simonton (1977b, 1984c)
It should be evident that the number of environmental factors is very large. (Note
that some works have been listed in more than one category because they treated two
or more developmental factors.) Moreover, several of these influences are necessarily
uncorrelated with genetic endowment, indicating that they must provide independent
inputs. The most obvious example is birth order, which has also attracted a great deal of
research ever since Galton (1874) identified it as an important developmental variable.
It is also a variable with exceedingly complex connections to genius because it interacts
with other factors (Simonton, 2008b; Stewart, 1977; Sulloway, 1996; Chapter 26).
Although the environmental factors appear very heterogeneous, many if not most
of them can be subsumed under a generic category of “diversifying experiences” (see
Chapter 18). That is, the future genius is exposed to unconventional or unstable events
that set them on a distinctive developmental path, making them “different.”
Adult trajectories If Galton’s (1869) historiometric study is the first to examine
the early origins of genius, Quetelet’s (1835/1968) represents the first to investi-
gate the career trajectory once the genius enters adulthood. The latter’s focus con-
cerned the ups and downs in creative output in French and English dramatists, iden-
tifying for the first time the single-peak function that has been replicated many times
since (Simonton, 1988a, 1997a). That is, productivity rises fairly rapidly to a career
optimum and thereafter slowly declines. Unfortunately, because Quetelet’s study was
110. Historiometric Studies of Genius 91
hidden in a larger work, it was ignored for more than a century – even after his-
toriometric research returned to the same question. The leading researcher in this
second wave was Harvey C. Lehman, most notably in his 1953 Age and Achievement
(Lehman, 1953; see also Lehman, 1958, 1962, 1966). Many other researchers fol-
lowed in his footsteps (for reviews, see Simonton, 1988a, 2012). My very earliest
publications were often devoted to the same topic (e.g., Simonton, 1975a, 1977a),
and I eventually treated it in terms of formal mathematical models with some predic-
tive scope (e.g., Simonton, 1991a, 1997a). At the same time, the relation between
age and genius has turned out to be very complex. Some of these complexities are
discussed in Chapters 20–22.
Longitudinal change in productivity is not the only substantive question examined
from a historiometric perspective. As Sulloway (Chapter 26) indicates, researchers have
also been interested in a person’s openness to innovation (e.g., Diamond, 1980; Hull,
Tessner, & Diamond, 1978). Why did not all of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries
accept the theory of evolution by natural selection? Yet another issue is the lifespan of
genius, an issue discussed by McKay and Kaufman (Chapter 22; see also Bowerman,
1947; Cassandro, 1998; Cox, 1926; Ellis, 1904; Kaufman, 2003; cf. Chapter 23). For
example, why do mathematicians die younger than do researchers in other scientific
disciplines? Why do poets die younger than do writers in other literary genres? Life
expectancy has an obvious connection with the length of any genius’s career: Nothing
can be accomplished post mortem.
Differential studies of genius
Geniuses not only differ from the rest of humanity, but also differ among each other.
For example, although we might use winning a Nobel Prize as a criterion for genius
(e.g., Jones, Reedy, & Weinberg, Chapter 20), it is obvious that not all Nobel laureates
are at the same level of genius. A luminary such as Albert Einstein definitely claims a far
more elevated level than Nils Gustaf Dal´en, both of whom received the Nobel Prize in
Physics, the former in 1922 and the latter in 1912 (despite the fact that Einstein had
already been unsuccessfully nominated). Where Einstein revolutionized physics by his
contributions to both relativity and quantum theories, Dal´en merely invented a device
that could automatically regulate the delivery of gas lighting to buoys and lighthouses!
Where Einstein’s genius is unquestionable, Dal´en’s is much less so – albeit his standing
certainly must surpass that of the average scientist on the street.
James McKeen Cattell (1903) was the first to quantify the comparative eminence
of historic creators and leaders, in his case using the amount of space assigned to
an individual in standard reference works, such as biographical dictionaries (see also
Whipple, 2004). Naturally, representation in archives is not the only way that genius
manifests itself (Simonton, 1990). Scientists can also be assessed by citation measures,
and composers can be gauged by performance frequencies. Alternatively, experts can
be asked to rate their relative impact, or a scale of achievement can be defined using
major awards and honors. Yet it does not really matter much how historical impact
is measured: A single latent variable called “Galton’s G” underlies alternative mea-
sures just as Spearman’s g underlies different instruments for assessing intelligence
(Simonton, 1991c). Not only is the consensus conspicuous, but also it is highly sta-
ble over time (Simonton, 1990; cf. Runco, Kaufman, Halladay, & Cole, 2010). For
instance, the relative status of artists during the Renaissance still corresponds to their
status today, centuries later (Ginsburgh & Weyers, 2006; Chapter 24). Michelangelo
111. 92 Dean Keith Simonton
was considered superior to Baccio Bandinelli way back then, and he still is viewed
superior now, and he always will be thought superior. This transhistorical stability in
achieved eminence is largely if not entirely founded on the consistent value placed on
the achievements on which their fame is based. For example, how well a new opera
does in its opening run predicts how well it is received today, even if centuries separate
the two events (Simonton, 1998). If so, the composers who created those operas must
owe their continued fame to those creative products.
Given what was just said, it should come as no surprise that many researchers have
defined genius in terms of the achievements themselves (Albert, 1975). An inven-
tor’s genius increases with the number of inventions, just as a general’s genius might
increase with the number of battles won. This alternative assessment of genius has
the advantage that it is grounded in specific and objective behaviors. Although these
behavioral measures correlate strongly with the reputational measures, they are not
equivalent (Simonton, 1990). Most conspicuous is the fact that while both eminence
and productivity show highly skewed distributions with an upper elite dominating
over their lesser competitors, reputation is far more skewed than output. As an exam-
ple, William Shakespeare’s status as a literary genius, assessed by the number of books
about him, is out of proportion to the weight of a volume of his collected plays and
poems (Martindale, 1995). Hence, posterity seems to revise the opinions of contem-
poraries by making small differences into big ones. Shakespeare once stood slightly
taller than Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, but now looks down on them from
Needless to say, a science of genius would not amount to much if investigators just
restricted themselves to assessing individual differences, either eminence or achieve-
ment. Far more interesting is to look for variables that predict the former differences.
Differential psychologists have come up with an impressive number of variables on
which people may vary. Some of these variables involve cognitive abilities, and others
dispositional traits. Hence, very early in the history of historiometry, researchers have
attempted to assess historic figures on one or more of these variables. These mea-
surements all require assessment-at-a-distance techniques (Song & Simonton, 2007).
Four examples have attracted the most attention: intelligence, personality, motivation,
Intelligence Given the frequent association of genius with superlative intelligence,
this individual-difference variable seems an obvious place to start. Although Gal-
ton (1869) talked about differential “natural ability” in his sample of geniuses, he
never measured that construct directly. It was left to Woods (1906) to become the
first researcher to attempt the historiometric assessment of “intellect.” In this case,
he used biographical materials, a method that was later validated by no less a fig-
ure than Edward L. Thorndike (1936; see also Simonton, 1983). Even so, because
the researcher inferred the trait, considerable room was left for the intrusion of sub-
jective bias. Woods was specifically interested in the correlation between intellect and
morality. By assessing both variables himself, he might have biased the results in favor
of his hypothesis (see also Woods, 1913).
Fortunately, a far better alternative was demonstrated by Catharine Cox (1926) in
her The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, arguably the greatest single his-
toriometric study ever published (Robinson & Simonton, 2013). This inquiry makes
up the second volume of Terman’s (1925–1959) Genetic Studies of Genius but is the
112. Historiometric Studies of Genius 93
only volume that is historiometric rather than psychometric (see Chapter 23). Terman
(1917) had previously estimated the intelligence of Francis Galton using biographi-
cal materials regarding his intellectual development and then applying the definition
IQ = MA / CA × 100 (where MA = his mental age, and CA = his chronological
age at the time of specified achievements, like writing and reading). Unlike Terman,
however, Cox examined a large sample of 301 geniuses, systematically collected data
regarding intellectual development for all of them, and then had a team of raters inde-
pendently score the archival information. She even went so far as to calculate two sets
of scores, one early and the other late, to calculate reliability coefficients, and to cor-
rect the raw estimates for measurement error. Last but definitely not least, she showed
that her IQ estimates were positively correlated with the ranked eminence that her
geniuses earned according to Cattell’s (1903) space measures. This correlation repre-
sents the first time that general intelligence was empirically connected with achieved
This last finding has been replicated many times in subsequent historiometric work
(Simonton, 2009b). These later replications either involved secondary analyses of
Cox’s (1926) data using new statistics and controls (Simonton, 1976a; Simonton &
Song, 2009) or else constituted largely if not entirely independent tests using dif-
ferent measures (Simonton, 1983, 1984d, 1991d, 2008a; Walberg, Rasher, & Hase,
1978). In addition, the intelligence–eminence relation holds for both exceptional cre-
ators and extraordinary leaders – the two main manifestations of genius. For exam-
ple, in the case of eminent leadership, assessed intelligence provides an excellent pre-
dictor of the greatness for both European monarchs and United States presidents
(Simonton, 1984d, 2006). The robustness of this historiometric result should proba-
bly be kept in mind when reading the psychometric findings reported in this handbook
(e.g., Chapters 4, 11, 19, 23). IQ tests do not provide the only means for assessing
Personality If morality or “virtue” can be viewed as a stable trait on which geniuses
may vary, then the first researcher to assess personality at a distance was again Woods
(1906), with the same follow-up study by Thorndike (1936). Later, individual differ-
ences in morality were shown to have consequences for the performance of European
absolute monarchs (Simonton, 1983, 1984d). Admittedly, morality is not what first
comes to mind when thinking of dispositional traits. Worse still, many more traits can
be conceived that should prove relevant to genius besides differences in virtue. To be
sure, Thorndike (1950) himself tried to expand the number of individual difference
variables in a posthumously published study (his having died in 1949). Altogether, he
personally assessed 91 eminent creators and leaders on more than three dozen charac-
teristics. He even calculated the correlations among the traits as well as assessed how
scores on the traits varied across domains. Although Thorndike died before he could
do much else with the data, subsequent researchers have subjected the data to sec-
ondary analyses (Knapp, 1962), even showing that a subset of the traits predicts the
differential achieved eminence of the 94 geniuses (Simonton, 1991d). Interestingly,
besides intelligence, aggressiveness emerged as a significant predictor.
Thorndike’s measures were somewhat makeshift. In contrast, other researchers have
attempted to take advantage of established personality measures (Craik, 1988). For
instance, Simonton (1986b) had blind raters apply the Adjective Check List (Gough
& Heilbrun, 1965) to anonymous personality sketches abstracted from biographies
113. 94 Dean Keith Simonton
of the United States presidents. From those ratings, he extracted 14 reliable factors,
most of which had important correlations with various criteria of executive leader-
ship. Most notably, an Intellectual Brilliance factor emerged as a powerful individual
predictor of presidential greatness (see also Simonton, 1988c, 2006). This factor is
fascinating insofar as it