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HPI, gifted, zebra: what’s the scientific reality behind these French terms?

Nicolas Gauvrit
Nicolas Gauvrit
Lecturer in Cognitive sciences at Université de Lille
Key takeaways
  • The most commonly used definition of the term HIP, often used in France, describes a person with above-average intellectual ability, i.e. an IQ above 130.
  • A number of other terms (zebra, gifted, precocious, etc.) are sometimes used in French, but their respective definitions do not relate to high intellectual potential.
  • A persistent stereotype of HIP people is that they are more unhappy and anxious than others, but scientific studies refute this idea.
  • One of the only personality traits exacerbated in HIP people is openness, which encompasses curiosity, imagination and an understanding of different moral values.
  • Diagnosing an HIP is not imperative: in some cases it is useful and sheds light on a situation, but sometimes the verdict becomes – wrongly – an explanation for everything.

In recent years, dis­cus­sions and debates about high intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial (“HIP”) have gar­nered a great deal of atten­tion. The phe­nom­e­non has even become par­tic­u­lar­ly pop­u­lar with the broad­cast on TF1 of a series of the same name (HPI) fea­tur­ing an inves­ti­ga­tor with above-aver­age intel­lec­tu­al abil­i­ties. With this grow­ing inter­est, tests are mul­ti­ply­ing to find out whether or not you are HIP. The sub­ject has almost become a fad, which inevitably brings with it its share of fan­tasies. How­ev­er, the term HIP encom­pass­es a sci­en­tif­ic reality.

“High intellectual potential is defined by an above-average intelligence quotient”: true

High intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial is defined by an intel­li­gence quo­tient (IQ) above 130, with the aver­age IQ being between 90 and 110. HIPs are in the top 2.3% in terms of IQ. This is the most com­mon def­i­n­i­tion. The term HIP empha­sis­es the fact that this is a poten­tial­i­ty. It means that the per­son has the abil­i­ty to achieve great things in the intel­lec­tu­al sphere. How­ev­er, this does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that they will, as oth­er fac­tors come into play. The sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture some­times prefers the term high intel­li­gence quo­tient (IQ), which has the advan­tage of being pure­ly descriptive.

“Zebra, HIP, gifted, precocious all mean the same thing”: false

Dif­fer­ent words are used to describe high intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial, and they cov­er dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions. “Pre­co­cious” is the term used by the French Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion, refer­ring to a per­son who is intel­lec­tu­al­ly advanced. This is not quite cor­rect, since these pupils are not advanced, but are rather more gift­ed than aver­age. The cog­ni­tive skills curve ris­es until the age of 25 and then stag­nates. In the case of HIPs, lev­els stag­nate at above-aver­age lev­els. The word “sur­doué” in French sug­gests that some­one is ‘too’ gift­ed. Peo­ple whose high intel­li­gence ends up caus­ing social prob­lems and mis­align­ments. But this is not the case. In Cana­da, we use the term “douance” a lot, which is close to “gift­ed­ness.” The term “zebra” was coined by psy­chol­o­gist Jeanne Siaud-Facchin, but is nev­er used in sci­ence. On social net­works, the word is used to describe a mix­ture of hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty, anx­i­ety, and emo­tion­al dif­fi­cul­ties, which does not cor­re­spond to the def­i­n­i­tion of high intel­lec­tu­al potential.

“The IQ test is the only way to know if someone is HIP”: uncertain

In research, the most com­mon def­i­n­i­tion is the IQ test. How­ev­er, some researchers con­sid­er this method inad­e­quate and pro­pose oth­er mod­els. Joseph Ren­zul­li, an Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist, for exam­ple, cre­at­ed the three-ring mod­el. Spe­cial­ists agree that high poten­tials are peo­ple who could achieve great things in the intel­lec­tu­al sphere, and that intel­li­gence in the sense of IQ is a cen­tral ele­ment. The ques­tion is which per­son­al­i­ty traits devel­op this poten­tial. Joseph Ren­zul­li adds two oth­er com­po­nents: cre­ativ­i­ty, because you need to be capa­ble of com­ing up with orig­i­nal ideas, and moti­va­tion, which he calls com­mit­ment to the task. In his view, if you can’t work long and hard on the same sub­ject, you can’t bring about a cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion. This mod­el is sound, but these com­po­nents remain dif­fi­cult to mea­sure, accord­ing to Nico­las Gauvrit.

“HIPs face more difficulties than others”: false

There is still a cer­tain stereo­type accord­ing to which an HIP per­son is patho­log­i­cal­ly out of step with oth­ers who are more anx­ious or sen­si­tive. But on this point, sci­en­tif­ic research is clear: it’s not true. Many stud­ies and data show that HIPs are no worse off than oth­ers. Nico­las Gau­vrit and his col­leagues were able to study data on a sam­ple of 260,000 peo­ple, pay­ing atten­tion to all kinds of dis­or­ders or dif­fi­cul­ties. In gen­er­al, there is no dif­fer­ence between high poten­tials and oth­ers. When there is, it is usu­al­ly in favour of the HIP. High poten­tial can be seen as a strength, because intel­li­gence is a resource for over­com­ing life’s dif­fi­cul­ties. Some­times being out of step with oth­ers can lead to com­pli­ca­tions. Stud­ies show that the strength con­ferred by HIP out­weighs the difficulties.

What is hypersensitivity?

Sen­si­tiv­i­ty is a per­son­al­i­ty trait that does not nec­es­sar­i­ly char­ac­terise HIP peo­ple. Sen­si­tive peo­ple react more to stim­uli, whether emo­tion­al or phys­i­cal. This can take the form of notic­ing small changes in the envi­ron­ment or react­ing intense­ly to art, for exam­ple. Every­one is at a high­er or low­er lev­el of sensitivity.

The term “hyper­sen­si­tive” is used to describe peo­ple who are at the top of the sen­si­tiv­i­ty scale. And this has both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive aspects. On the one hand, these indi­vid­u­als are more atten­tive; on the oth­er, their emo­tions are more intense and can be more dif­fi­cult to man­age. At the same time, hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple are bet­ter able to under­stand their emo­tions. So, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is not a dis­or­der, but sta­tis­ti­cal­ly it is asso­ci­at­ed with more emo­tion­al dif­fi­cul­ties – it’s a risk factor.

What’s more, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is a dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ty trait from emo­tion­al­i­ty. Sen­si­tiv­i­ty favours emo­tion­al­i­ty, but it is pos­si­ble to be sen­si­tive and know how to man­age strong emo­tions. Poor emo­tion­al man­age­ment is inde­pen­dent of hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty. In fact, hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple gen­er­al­ly man­age their emo­tions bet­ter. Like oth­er per­son­al­i­ty traits, sen­si­tiv­i­ty can be measured.

“High intellectual potential is an invention”: false

There is a counter-leg­end that high poten­tials are noth­ing spe­cial, that they are a hol­low inven­tion, but this is not true. IQ is a con­tin­u­um: there’s not much dif­fer­ence between an IQ of 125 and 135, and it may seem arbi­trary to set the thresh­old at 130. How­ev­er, the dif­fer­ence does exist. This is com­pa­ra­ble to height: if we say that peo­ple over 1m95 are “very tall”, this may seem arbi­trary for peo­ple who are 1m93. How­ev­er, it would be wrong to say that peo­ple mea­sur­ing 1m95 are noth­ing spe­cial. They are more like­ly to be seen in the under­ground, and they bump into each oth­er more often. So, there is indeed a dif­fer­ence, which can some­times lead to a feel­ing of being out of place – which is per­fect­ly manageable.

“HIPs have particular personality traits”: uncertain

There are no per­son­al­i­ty traits that can be used to detect high intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial. How­ev­er, of the five major per­son­al­i­ty traits tra­di­tion­al­ly con­sid­ered in psy­chol­o­gy (i.e. Open­ness, Con­scious­ness, Extra­ver­sion, Agre­abil­i­ty, Neu­roti­cism), only one dis­tin­guish­es them from the oth­ers: open­ness. This term cov­ers curios­i­ty, but also the desire to dis­cov­er new things, intel­lec­tu­al open­ness, a taste for the imag­i­nary, the abil­i­ty to under­stand dif­fer­ent moral val­ues, etc. On aver­age, HIPs have high­er scores on this per­son­al­i­ty trait. For the oth­er four main traits (extra­ver­sion, agree­able­ness, neu­roti­cism and con­sci­en­tious­ness), there is no sig­nif­i­cant difference.

“You need to know if you are an HIP”: false

It is not at all nec­es­sary to know that you are intel­lec­tu­al­ly more gift­ed than aver­age. In fact, many psy­chol­o­gists are very cau­tious and do not rush to the test when in doubt. You have to con­sid­er the effects on the indi­vid­ual of a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive test. You can be dev­as­tat­ed when you think you are and you’re not. On the oth­er hand, once you’ve been diag­nosed, you can start to explain every­thing in this way. So there is a risk, and it’s bet­ter to know what the answer is going to be used for. For exam­ple, it can be use­ful for an adult who wants to move towards a more intel­lec­tu­al career. As far as chil­dren are con­cerned, it may be more impor­tant to know if there are prob­lems at school, or if there are plans to skip a grade. How­ev­er, even in these cas­es, it is not absolute­ly nec­es­sary. It is more of an indi­ca­tion, but the French Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion spec­i­fies that the fact of being an HIP is nei­ther a pre­con­di­tion nor an auto­mat­ic rea­son for mov­ing up a grade.

Interview by Sirine Azouaoui

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