Are Gifted People Arrogant?

Unfortunately, too many intellectually gifted individuals have been criticized for being arrogant.  Using one’s intelligence to the point that those around him feel inferior or less-than is often considered an act of arrogance.  And it also assumes the gifted individual intentionally wanted to make those around him feel inferior.  Yet, businesses desire, recruit and hire intelligent, high-performing employees over less-able workers. Quite a dilemma.

When this same scenario happens to gifted children in the classroom—when they are teased in school for their high scores— they are often referred to as nerds or show-offs although schools strive for children to be high-achieving students with high test scores.  Quite a hypocrisy.

It is like we are saying, “Do your best, but do not do your best if it makes someone else feel less-than.”  Or, “Be all you can be, reach your full potential, but keep it on the down-low so those around you don’t complain or call you names or shun you.”

Damned if you do.  Damned if you don’t.

Are gifted individuals really arrogant?  Do gifted children really show-off  their intelligence?

These are two questions I’ve given a great deal of thought to.  When I take into consideration all of the gifted people I know—family, friends, students I’ve taught—I don’t see the arrogance or the intent to show-off.  I only see an individual thinking, working and operating on his own intellectual level, a level which is his normal.

Let me explain.

A child is intellectually gifted because he was born with a talented brain that develops, learns and operates at advanced levels of intelligence and reasoning well beyond his chronological age.  This is much like a child who was born with a gifted voice who can belt out a complex song, one that we would only see adults perform.  Or it is similar to a basketball phenom who begins his professional basketball career right out of high school.  In all three cases, when one of these gifted individuals uses their talent, their inborn giftedness, whether it be thinking, singing or playing basketball, they are all three operating at their own level of ability, a level that is normal for them, but higher than the rest of us.

Personally, I can’t even dribble a basketball, and I can’t sing worth a solfeggio!  I’m fine with that.

Yet, when a basketball prodigy plays basketball, does society scramble to voice their distaste for his public display of showing off his ability?  Nope, not likely.

When we all rush to download the trending song from the unbelievably talented voice of a 9 year old, do we hear a mass of objections saying this child is just showing off and that she is just being arrogant to think she can sing so well?  Not at all.

When a brilliant businessman develops an unbelievably creative solution which is the perfect answer to a complex problem which was crippling his company, do his co-workers envy his creative skills and spurn him, or does his boss feel threatened by his extraordinary ability to problem-solve and then tries to undermine his employee’s success?  Yup, this happens all the time.

It’s called workplace bullying and gifted individuals are proven to be the most likely victims of this type of bullying.

When a gifted child with a reading level several grade levels ahead of her age-mates reads chapter books while her classmates are only reading easy-reader picture books, is she thought to be showing off?  Often times, she is.

And then her classmates tease her for her advanced reading skills, and parents of her classmates complain because their own children feel bad in comparison to the gifted child.

What is at the heart of these dichotomies, these double-standards?  Why are we fine when others excel beyond our own capabilities in music, art or athletics?  Why are we not envious or resentful enough to cry out that this is elitism, or request that the person excelling suppress herself because she is making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves?

The answer may be anti-intellectualism.  Many believe our society strongly adheres to anti-intellectualism, and some people are simply envious and then act on their envy.

The truth is, gifted individuals think and operate on their own advanced-level of cognitive ability which is perfectly normal for them.  In order to be purposely arrogant, or to intentionally show off, intellectually gifted people would need to know or be aware of the intelligence and ability levels of those around him—they would need to know that the people around them have less ability or intelligence than they do. Once they surmise the levels and deem them lower than their own, only then could they show off or act arrogantly.  For someone to show off or be purposely arrogant, there has to be lower-ability people around him who then feel less-than and then complain.  I get that, but…

Would we then ask a gifted 1st grader to first judge the intellectual levels of his classmates, and then dumb down his own intellectual ability so he won’t hurt his classmates feelings, or risk being called a show-off?  Would we expect a gifted businessman to underperform and hold back on much-needed creative solutions so that his less-capable boss doesn’t feel threatened, or to prevent his co-workers from criticizing him for being arrogant?


Just as soon as we expect that basketball phenom to purposely miss some slam dunks so the rest of his teammates do not feel ashamed, and then we also ask the gifted young vocalist to sing off key once in awhile so her friends don’t feel bad about themselves.

What do you think?

28 Comments on “Are Gifted People Arrogant?

  1. I think one commonality between your examples is that the “OK to be exceptional” items are all opt-in activities. I’m not good at basketball, which is fine…man look at that other kid play! Same with art, music, and various hobbies. There is little ego in it, except perhaps in instances where you are passionate about being skilled at something and can see how much easier it comes to a teammate, peer, or competitor.

    But with intelligence, it is one of the primary resources we use as human beings to traverse the world around us. I am not saying I am inherently better because I’m more intelligent than most because I’m not. But it can be hard for people to not feel threatened by someone that has more tools at their disposal, especially in competitive environments like the workplace. If one general at war has access to a spyglass, and another has satellite imaging, the former is going to feel envious, jealous, and is likely to try and diminish the accomplishments (well yea, but he had an unfair advantage). Because intelligence is an inherent facet of our physiology/psychology, it seems like it’s easier to blame someone of being arrogant rather than acknowledge than in that department, they just happen to be more gifted.

    But I’m not trying to argue against anti-intellectualism in western culture. To me it seems like both factors play a role to the very real phenomenon you describe.

    • Nick,

      I agree with you 100%! Art, music, sports–we don’t all try to compete in these, so there is always the hope that if I’m not good at playing piano, I could possibly excel at tennis. Or not participate in any of these activities at all and not be a part of the competition. But, intelligence is one human facet, as you said, we all participate in.

      “Because intelligence is an inherent facet of our physiology/psychology, it seems like it’s easier to blame someone of being arrogant rather than acknowledge than in that department, they just happen to be more gifted.” <---you hit the nail on the head here! Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts here, Nick!

  2. I used to be teased for years,..when your father is black and your mother isn’t you grow up without an identity…I had to develop skills so advanced at my age, I would bring those thick “Chronicles of Narnia” like books (you know, the 900 page one) into the hood with my things to go to school, and they’d rip me apart. Even in the suburbs I was an outcast because I was so socially awkward and never go out but I would sit and think upon thoughts for hours alone, develop ideas alone, read until the sun went down..before music it was an imaginary friend to accompany me. I could not and still cannot deal with my intelligence and at times I smoke myself out with pot until I cannot think, but instead just emit music. Also, language is easier than breathing to me as well as reading body language, social awareness, adjusting speech according to any situation in terms of ebonics, tone of voice to the inflection of every word, to pinpointing each parts of every word by adding corrections within a millisecond so before I even open my mouth, I may not know exactly what to say, but I know how to say just about anything.

    • Hi Dante,

      So glad you found us! You’ll find you are not alone and there are many gifted people just like you and all of us here. I’ve come to realize that giftedness is not better, and it is not so different (you know, different from what or whom?), it is just our normal, and our normal is good.

      Thank you for leaving your thoughts here, Dante!

  3. Belatedly, “anti-intellectualism” is the term we use to describe this phenomenon, not an explanation for why it exists. There is still want for an explanation for why this particularly resentment has found so widespread resonation in society.

    • Specifically, in American / Canadian / British plutocratic society.

      Europe and Asia are much better.

  4. The answer that is… Some are, some aren’t. Most people can be sometimes, some people are more often than others.

    Do you actually think merit matters much in hiring? In reality, nepotism and connections matter WAY more.

    • This was exhilarating! I cannot believe there are people like me. I cannot believe I am not alone. Apologies for the super gushy post, it’s just that it is incredible to realize that you aren’t crazy you know? Like.. perhaps there is for the madness.

  5. As a gifted adult i relate so much. As you said, you’re enthusiastic, they say you’re arrogant. What the hel!! “You think you so smart”. Hmm, i couldn’t actually care less about that!

  6. Just parenthetically, I realized that I put my last name down. Now EVERYONE will know what an arrogant son-of-a-_____ I am! Oh gosh, what to do now?

    Except for one problem with the assumption that I am intentionally arrogant, along with other gifted people: We aren’t. At least not deliberately, as you say. I have learned to hide my light under a bushel, so that people don’t jump down my throat for my “arrogance” and “acting too smart”. But that has come at a terrible cost, to my self-confidence and my ability to believe in myself.
    It seems to be one extreme or the other: Dumb down and don’t get harassed, or be oneself and be bullied and criticised for being “too smart, too arrogant for my own good”. So I compromise; I check people’s attitudes and belief-systems pretty carefully, try to get a good “read” on them, so if they are the type who tend towards hatred and jealousy and envy, I know to keep “it” hidden. If, on the other hand, the person comes across as anywhere between fairly intelligent (well above average, even if not “genius” material), all the way up to “real genius”, I don’t hold back, and I end up in some great discussions. Problem is, when I do the latter, I notice that people will listen in if the discussion’s in a restaurant or coffee shop or something, and I am treated to loud sighs and eye-rolling, as though we are “showing off”. You’d think that instead of speaking intelligently, my smart companion and I had both simultaneously let out the world’s smelliest flatulence.
    And again, going the other way, I can’t tell you how many times I have been stuck in a conversation full of small-talk and general “stuff” that causes me to RAPIDLY lose interest. I smile and nod, and act like a half-hour discussion of small-talk is the most fascinating thing on the face of the Earth (so as to not hurt the feelings of the other person), but at such a time, I would consider chewing off my leg — like a trapped animal — to get the HECK out of such a BORING conversation. The other problem for me for small talk, is I run out of things to say, and start asking the other person questions about themselves. And sometimes that is no help either, because not everyone is truly and utterly fascinating. Hearing from such people about their childhood spent playing hockey and “picking up chicks” for the 4000th time is less than stimulating, believe me. All in the name of avoiding the charge of arrogance.
    I honestly doubt many of the people who lay the charge of “arrogance” actually even understand what the word means. It’s like calling someone a “Nazi” or “Communist” if you are losing a political argument: It’s a meaningless, throwaway word, that is flung with the intention of hurting feelings, and thereby making the attacker feel better about themselves for a few minutes or (if they are really narcissistic), several hours: “Look, I scored a cheap-shot and now the other person is hurt! Yea for me!!!”
    In elementary and early high school (Grades 5-9, when I was bullied the worst), it wasn’t “arrogance” as such, that I was charged with. It was far more often a related idea, “acting too smart” or “You think you’re smarter than the rest of us” — to which I once replied, very matter-of-factly to one person, “No, I don’t think I am smarter than you. I KNOW I am smarter than you”; (that earned me a punch in the solar plexus and a kick in the crotch after I fell down). That’s not arrogance; he was a student who was constantly put into remedial programs, and was diagnosed, we later learned by accident, as a “slow learner”; I was a student getting B’s and A’s in everything but math. So it was a true statement, but he called me an “Arrogant Bastard” and went to the teacher and principal, and (none too brilliantly) admitted hitting me first, but complained that I was “too smart”, to which the principal replied, “what do you want me to do, make him less intelligent?”
    It’s a combination of factors: jealousy, envy, hatred of intellectualism, a radical notion of egalitarianism (vis-a-vis Harrison Bergeron), a lack of vision or breadth of awareness on the part of (too) many people, and a culture that venerates sports heroes and rock stars over geniuses.
    Thanks, Celi, for you comments in the blog. Nice to have someone in MY corner (aside from my parents and wife and a very few friends who know my “secret”) for a change.

    • Oh gosh, John, your comments are the best–incredibly thought-provoking and so right on the money, BUT I never knew you also had a wonderful sense of humor. Using “You’d think that instead of speaking intelligently, my smart companion and I had both simultaneously let out the world’s smelliest flatulence.” as an example of how people react to intelligent conversations! Priceless! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, John and please keep in tough!

      • Dear Celi;

        Thank YOU for the two compliments. I am just so happy to realize that I am not a freak twice over; the first time for having an extremely high IQ, and the second time for thinking all these problems were mostly unique to me. I work and “play” in the Information Tech industry, especially in the Open Source Software part of the industry (Linux, BSD, Free/Libre Open Source Software). I have met so many brilliant individuals concentrated in one social/technical/professional area, and so many of them are so reluctant to discuss their own brilliance. Now, thanks to you and much of the research I’ve done on my own (enough to fill a 5″ binder), I finally “GET” why they do that, why they are NOT freaks — and neither am I, either for having the IQ or the problems that others foist upon me and people like me. Most especially I want to thank you for your kind words and support, not just to me but to parents of gifted kids (us), but also people who themselves are gifted (again, me and my wife). Thank you! Cheers JJW

        • No need to thank me. I’m on a mission to try to make sure the gifted do not ever feel less than or face negative reactions to their intelligence. My youngest son did and I’m just doing my part to help others.

          Isn’t it odd that people shun,envy and resent intelligence, although we admire artistic talent and athletic ability (just look at all the hype for the Super Bowl today)? We should never feel like freaks and our gifted children should never grow up learning to dumb down. It reminds me of a line in the song “One Love” by Macklemore: “America the brave still fears what we don’t know.” Is it actually fear of intelligent people that causes the negative reactions? That would be a good topic of conversation.

          Thanks again, John!

  7. This is my life in a nutshell. I still get these kind of eye-rolling reactions when I speak. It’s really stunning that I have grown men behave like brats in front of me. I get told all the time that I’m a “weird dude”, “autistic”, “have ADD” and I need to “tone down the smart”.
    In college most of my professors ignored me or openly disrespected me. My one Latin professor told me, “Well, I guess you have some talent” on the final day as she handed me “C” for the semester. This, even though I taught myself all the material and had to wait for everyone else. I even had to help out a struggling student because she thought I was more proficient.
    I believe that envy is one of the prime motives of today’s society. Rene Girad, the French sociologist and mythologist, posits that people get their ideas, urges, and wants from others. This copying of desire results in envy towards the different or better. Eventually, this process becomes so intense that it results in scapegoating an innocent victim or a rivalry unto death.
    Another example of this is Steve Jobs’ eponymous Walter Isaacson biography. Throughout this work people call him “a narcissist” and “manic-depressive”. Although it seemed to me that like Edison or Ford, he was gifted (possibly 2E) and found it frustrating that people wouldn’t listen to him in a normal tone of voice or readily accept his visions.So he had to be the bully, the slave driver and stickler to get things done. And when he had OE episodes, people thought of it as some kind of breakdown. Either way he incurred the wrath of Apple, who infamously fired him.
    I don’t know how you put up with the nonsense. I know I had to develop a thick skin. People say I’m hard to read, but I got tired of being made fun of for crying over stories I read and why people weren’t concerned over some injustice in Africa. Reading this blog over the last month has reminded me of why I stick out and simultaneously bury my head in the sand.

    • Adam, your story rings true for many gifted people. And your thoughts about Steve Jobs are right on point. I agree with you about envy being one of the prime motives, and it is probably at the crux of the anti-intellectualism issue many of us talk about, too. Being gifted can be so overwhelming which is why I keep speaking out about it and hoping my voice along with others can make some sort of difference, even if it is a small one. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and hang in there 🙂

      • Thank you for keeping up your blog. I hope that it can make even a small dent in the education system or awareness of the “gifted and talented” Some part of me is glad that I am gifted, but otherwise it really has been a challenge. It has resulted in my life being more than two decades of cold war in the school system and civil war with my family. Your husband and son have my sympathy.
        I especially empathize with your son and his problems. The only thing that save me was in 6th-7th, and 9th through 11th grade I lucked into schools that had block scheduling and self-directed learning. I finally didn’t feel so confused by the bells and whistles and constant mockery from other students.
        My greatest hope is that the internet and devices like the iPad, iPod Touch, and smart phones can finally bust up our antedeluvian education system. On the side I work on education reform (con brio if I may say so) and its possibilities.
        I wouldn’t be writing this, or even having these viewpoints, except for the fact that I was approached by a local school to teach social studies. The head took me into his class to shadow him and another educator. As I watched them harangue a visibly bored student body, I thought, “What if I get up there and do this to another kid out there who’s like me?” After the tour I thanked them for the opportunity and never called back.
        If I do go into teaching, I will follow Holt’s advice: a school should have no more than a hundred kids, optimally 15-20, with a curriculum that is whatever the student is interested in, vetted by the instructor.
        In the end I don’t think gifted people are arrogant. The other gifted people and their families that I have met all seem to be battle-tested and hardened, roughed up but more than capable of meeting the world’s challenges.
        “Life is a fair fight, but a terrible compromise”– GK Chesterton

        • Giftedness is a struggle for sure–some children come through it unscathed if they had the right education and support, and then some don’t if their education and community did not support them. It just shouldn’t be that way–a double-edged sword. Thanks again, Adam. Take care!

    • Thanks so much for your insight. This phrase of yours screams out to me, because it describes exactly how I have feel: “People say I’m hard to read, but I got tired of being made fun of for crying over stories I read and why people weren’t concerned over some injustice in Africa.” I was once advised to “say less than you know, but have more than you show,” and this was so disheartening. What’s the point of having something as valuable as higher knowledge and capability if you’re forced to suppress it?

  8. This is so true and so well said, Celi. So many gifted folks I know are simply excited to talk about what they’re learning and would love to be intellectually challenged by someone else. The intention is not boasting but just sincere desire to share. And they often don’t realize that the people around them aren’t on the same cognitive level. I had a client whose professor told her “people don’t like a know-it-all.” She was devastated. She was just enthusiastic about the topic. So sad that even a college professor doesn’t get it. Thanks for writing and for all you do for gifted kids.

    • “She was just enthusiastic about the topic.” This is what I also find so true about gifted children including my own–they are just so excited and passionate about their current favorite topic, they just bubble over and it looks to everyone else like showing-off or being a know-it-all. My heart really aches for your client. What a disservice to such an intelligent person! Thank you, Paula, for sharing your thoughts, and THANK YOU for all that you do for gifted adults! I LOVE your blog <3

    • I completely get this. You know even as an adult I have a hard time coping with this. I am constantly contemplating on whether or not I should speak or answer someones question or join in on conversation. I keep my mouth shut most of the time because I know I often make eyes roll or gloss over. Even on social media, I’ve been told that I come with a lot of information. Its been rough. I’ve found I’ve been post happy lately because I’ve found my “tribe” and people actually get me! lol. I now have to refrain myself from seeming too intense and find a balance, lol. But finding others I connect with without being belittled or told I’m too much is refreshing and liberating.

      • And I completely get what you shared because it is a relief and a joy to find your tribe especially when we have something as complex as giftedness, that so many others don’t get, in common. We all bubble over with information when we find the people who get giftedness! Thank you, Nicole, and welcome to the tribe 🙂

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