Interesting paper on giftedness. Short answer, nobody has natural aptitude, just perhaps inclinations to spend more time and energy mastering things than others. Hard work is what counts.

Innate Gifts and Talents: Reality or Myth?

Michael J. A. Howe
Department of Psychology,
University of Exeter
Exeter EX4 4QG, England

Jane W. Davidson
Department of Music,
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S10 2TN

John A. Sloboda
Department of Psychology, Keele University
Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, England

KEYWORDS: gift, talent, prodigy, expertise, exceptional ability, innate capacity, specific ability, potential

100-WORD ABSTRACT: Innate potentials in the form of gifts and talents are widely believed to contribute to high attainments in various areas of expertise. This article examines findings from a number of sources that appear to either support or contradict that viewpoint, and considers alternative causes of exceptional abilities. It is concluded that there there is no firm evidence for the existence of phenomena having the qualities attributed innate gifts and talents by users of those terms, and that the the outcomes commonly attributed to the effects of innate gifts and talents can be largely accounted for in terms of alternative causes of high abilities.

250-WORD ABSTRACT: This article evaluates evidence and arguments concerning the concepts of innate gifts and talents, defined as identifiable innate potentials that are considered to be present in some children but not others with predictable influences that selectively facilitate the acquisition of accomplishments in certain spheres of ability, making it possible for individuals possessing such attributes to reach levels of performance that cannot be achieved by individuals lacking innate gifts and talents. Various phenomena alleged to indicate the presence of innate gifts and talents are examined, including the spontaneous emergence of exceptional abilities in young children, special capacities that are possibly innate, indications of biological underpinning of skills and abilities, and spontaneously emerging abilities in a few autistic savants. Findings that appear to be incompatible with the existence of gifts and talents are also considered, including results of developmental studies indicating an absence of early precursors of high skill levels in young people. Evidence supporting alternative explanations of phenomena supposedly indicative of the influence of gifts and talents is discussed. It is concluded that there is no firm evidence that some people acquire special abilities that can only be explained by assuming that certain children possess identifiable special innate capacities that have predicatable influences determining whether or not an individual can reach high levels of achievement within specified areas of skill or expertise.


In many areas of expertise, ranging from music, dance, art and literature to sports, chess, mathematics, science and foreign-language acquisition, there is abundant evidence that young people differ from one another in their attainments and in the apparent ease with which they master their goals. Some children appear to take to an activity `naturally’, making impressively fast progress with little apparent effort. Even within a family there may be marked differences, with one child struggling at a musical instrument without much success, whilst a younger sibling quickly overtakes the older child. Other things being equal, children who make good early progress are usually more likely than others to achieve high levels of competence.

It is widely believed that the explanation for the differences between individuals is that the likelihood of people becoming unusually competent in certain fields of accomplishment depends upon the presence or absence of attributes that have an inborn biological component, and are variously labelled `gifts’ or `talents’ or, less often, `natural aptitudes’. It is thought that a young person is unlikely to become an exceptionally good musician, for example, unless he or she is among the minority of individuals who are, innately, musically `talented’ or `gifted’. According to one British survey, in certain areas of expertise, notably music, over three-quarters of the educators who decide which young people are to be given instruction believe that children are incapable of doing well unless they possess special gifts or natural talents (Davis, 1994). The judgement that someone is gifted is believed to help explain (as distinct from merely describing) their success, by pointing to the existence of innate qualities of the individual person that are seen as promoting or facilitating, in a relatively direct and specific manner, the acquisition of key skills within a particular area of expertise. It is also widely assumed that innate gifts can be detected in a young child by individuals with appropriate knowledge and experience, and that the correct identification of such a gift forms a basis for making predictions about the likelihood of an individual becoming able to excel.

The purpose of the present article is to assess the veracity of that account. We examine the evidence and the arguments for and against the view that exceptional accomplishments depend upon an individual possessing a special biological potential that coincides with the meanings implied when people refer to special gifts or talents, which can reliably identified in young children and provides a basis for making predictions about the likelihood of an individual becoming capable of reaching high levels of competence in the specific domain or field within which that person is thought to be gifted.

The issue has social implications that affect many people’s lives. From the perspective of a young person who is assumed to possess an innate gift it might appear that the belief that the child has such gifts is purely beneficial. It is possible that such a belief would have positive effects even if it turned out to be factually incorrect, partly because of the special opportunities that may follow when someone has identified as being innately gifted, and partly because simply believing oneself to be advantageously equipped can help to motivate a person and give self-confidence. Differences between individuals in their self-beliefs affect progress in various areas of competence, and may provide better predictors of future achievement than individual differences in IQ (Dweck, 1986; Vispoel & Austin, 1993). However, another consequence of the shared belief in the existence of innate gifts and talents as a necessary cause of high achievement is that those young people who are not identified as possessing innate gifts in a particular domain are likely to be denied help and encouragement that are needed in order to reach high levels of competence, as a result of influential adults holding the view that those individuals lack attributes thought to be essential in order to benefit from help and encouragement. Moreover, children’s progress can be affected negatively as well as positively by adults’ expectations (Brophy & Good, 1973). Hence for numerous young people harmful consequences would follow from a state of affairs in which influential adults shared a belief in the importance of inborn gifts that was found to be contradicted by empirical evidence. In that event, for the many children who were perceived as being innately ungifted, the consequences of teachers’ and parents’ having such mistaken beliefs would be far from negligible or benign.

In short, it is important to establish whether or not it is true that qualities which coincide with popular notions of `gifts’ or `talents’ actually do contribute to the acquisition of exceptional capabilities. In the remainder of this article we examine some of the evidence for and against that possibility. First, findings that appear to confirm or refute the existence of gifts are surveyed. Subsequently we consider evidence relating to alternative explanations of the phenomena that appear to be explained by invoking gifts and talents, and some arguments critical of these other explanations are scrutinized.

Prior to considering empirical evidence for and against the view that some children possess qualities corresponding to the idea of a gift or an innate talent, it is necessary to be as clear as possible about what is meant by these terms. A complication is that in everyday life people who use the words `gift’ and `talent’ in order to explain someone’s success are rarely precise about the intended meanings. Most users appear to be unaware of the desirability of either specifying the form an innate gift takes or indicating how it might actually exert its influence. When users’ implicit definitions are enquired into, these are found to vary considerably (Gagné, 1993), to the extent that if the terms can be regarded as referring to single concepts, the latter are somewhat broad. A concept that is as fervently believed in as `gift’ is, yet without being adequately defined and without its supposed mode of operation being delineated, seems custom-made to resist scientific verification or disproof.

Nevertheless, for our purposes it is necessary to be reasonably precise concerning the intended meanings, and specify some defining characteristics of the terms `gift’ and `talent’. Doing this requires making careful choices. It is definitely possible to define the terms in a manner that reflects the implied definitions of certain users and establish that there exists firm evidence for the existence of innate gifts and talents. But it would be equally possible to decide on definitions of innate gifts and talents that coincide with the definitions implied by certain other users of those terms and establish that the existence of innate gifts and talents is not verified by any firm evidence. We need to make choices about the necessary attributes of innate gifts and talents that coincide with the explicit or implicit denotations of those terms adopted by the majority of users, while at the same time avoiding being unacceptably broad or imprecise as a consequence of attempting to encompass all the widely varying usages of the terms. In doing this, two particular pitfalls have to be evaded. On the one hand, it is important to avoid insisting on the presence of attributes which although assumed to be present by many lay users would be regarded by researchers as having little scientific credibility. For example, many people believe that the concept of an innate gift or talent must imply the existence of some innately pre-formed ability that guarantees that its possessor will inevitably thrive in the relevant field of skill or expertise, but from the perspective of some scientific and scholarly users of the concept we might be seen to be setting up a straw man by insisting on the presence of attributes whose necessity they would possibly disavow.

On the other hand, it would be equally unacceptable to restrict the necessary defining attributes of these terms to ones which would be accepted by each and every researcher who has ever introduced them, for instance by deciding that the term `innate gift’ need imply no more than the idea that those individuals who have reached high levels of achievements must have biologically differed from others in some or other undefined manner. The extreme imprecision of such a definition would deny any obligation for the terms to be regarded as implying the presence of certain attributes that are habitually implied whenever these terms are introduced in practical everyday circumstances. For example, people who introduce the concepts in everyday life often take it as a given that it is possible to obtain knowledge of a person’s gift or talent prior to the full flowering of that individuals’ achievement, and make the assumption that such knowledge can be used in order to make predictions about an individual’s likelihood of succeeding. The very fact that the terms carry these implications for users is one reason for the present investigation being necessary, and for the present enquiry to be relevant to the application in real life of the concepts being investigated, it is essential for definitions to take account of this.

For the sake of simplicity, in the present article we shall take the terms `gift’ and `talent’ to be broadly synonymous. We assume, following Françoys Gagné’s survey of constructs pertaining to exceptional abilities (Gagné, 1993), that an innate gift or talent (1) has its origin in genetic structures and is at least partly innate. The full effects of possessing the gift may not be evident at an early stage, but (2) there will be some advance indication that an individual possesses the gift, legitimising the view that at least some trained individuals are able to identify a gift’s presence prior to the emergence of the exceptional levels of mature performance that the gift is believed to make possible. Consequently, (3) this supposed knowledge of the possession of a gift provides a basis for predicting whether or not (and explaining why) a particular young person has an above-average chance of becoming capable of high levels of performance in a field or domain related to the gift. It is also necessary to assume that (4) particular gifts and talents are only possessed by a minority of individuals, if only because an “all children are talented” position rules out the possibility of the concept helping to explain why some individuals have more success than others. Finally (5), to ensure that our usage of the terms coincides reasonably closely with those of the majority of users, we assume that the effects of a particular innate gift or talents will be relatively specific to particular domains or skill areas.

For various reasons, certain other commonly-implied attributes of innate gifts and talents will not be insisted upon in the current discussion. First, despite the apparent terminological implication of the word `gifted’, and although many teachers of specific skills and other users would consider it mandatory for determinants of high abilities to take the form of all-or-none attributes in order to be counted as being instances of innate gifts, for the purposes of this paper we do not insist on this. Second, we do not presume that it is only legitimate to describe individuals as being innately gifted if they can be shown to possess causative processes or mechanisms that are qualitatively different from ones possessed by individuals who are not gifted. Third, we allow the possibility that an innate gift can take different forms, so saying that two children each have `a gift for music’ need not necessarily imply that the two are advantaged in precisely the same way. However, it would be inconsistent with most experts’ notions of innate gifts and talents to agree that a gift for music can take an entirely different form in every single individual who is said to possess such a gift. Fourth, we do not insist that in order for an influence on performance to be considered to take the form of an innate gift its effects must necessarily be direct ones, even though some users would require that. There are additional aspects of gifts and talents with respect to which it would be desirable to specify parameters that might be relevant to decisions about the presence or absence of gifts and talents, but doing so would be impracticable. For instance, we regret the vagueness in the phrase “relatively specific” in the fifth of the necessary attributes listed above, and would prefer to have been able to specify the locations of boundaries between domains and skills and decide upon limitations in breadth or area of a domain of ability within which a gift might be regarded as capable of facilitating performance, but in the absence of clear, measurable and agreed-upon divisions and the capability for verification, this is not presently possible. Similarly, one might wish to insist upon a specified degree of selectivity in order for a causal influence to be considered to take the form of an innate gift. It would be equally desirable to be in a position to decide upon the actual extent to which an influence might be expected to facilitate the acquisition of special abilities in order to qualify as an innate talent, to rule on whether or not quantitative differences in degrees of giftedness can be present. It would also be desirable to be able to specify the times during an individual’s lifespan when it is possible for signs and manifestations of gifts or talent to be detected, as well as the periods during which the eventual influences of gifts and talents might be manifest. It would also be very useful to be able to assess the degree of directness in the manner that an influence exerts its eventual effects. In practice, however, in the majority of cases it would be unproductive to insist upon specifying values for these parameters at the present stage because the empirical evidence lacks the kinds of detailed information that one would need to have in order to make the necessary measurements and reach judgements. It would be pointless to insist on certain conditions being met in order to decide whether certain findings qualify as being indicative of the presence of gifts and talents when a lack of the appropriate information in relation to the available empirical data makes it impossible to know whether or not the imposed conditions have been reached.

Difficulties of this kind also make it hard to verify or disprove certain intriguing propositions concerning the form that innate gifts might conceivably take. Some writers insist that gifts are localised in certain `core’ abilities (Gardner 1984; 1993; Winner, 1993). For Winner (1996), who asserts that talents (defined by her as innate abilities or proclivities to learn in a particular domain) play a role in all fields in which instances of childhood precocity are encountered, the core ability of the visually gifted child is said to be “a visual-spatial motor precocity which allows the child to capture the contour of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface” (Winner & Martino, 1993, p. 267). The core ability of a musically talented young person is “a sensitivity to the structure of music: tonality, key, harmony and rhythm”, according to Winner & Martino, (1993, p. 267). In principle, specifying `core’ abilities could make it possible to be more precise about the possible loci of the effects of innate gifts and talents. However, even the core abilities can be seen as being composite abilities that incorporate a number of more specific skills, and consequently there remains considerable uncertainty about the manner in which a person’s `gift’ might affect performance. In music, for example, many different skills are involved, and a person’s levels of competence at the different ones are by no means highly correlated (Sloboda, 1985; 1991). It would be possible to infer from this that there might be a distinct core ability corresponding to each distinct skill, but if that were the case, in order for someone to possess an innate gift that exerted a major influence on that individual’s progress as a musician, the gift might have to take the form of a process or mechanism that affected each of a number of core abilities. Alternatively, the individual might be regarded as possessing a number of separate innate gifts that, collectively, facilitated the acquisition of high levels of musical capability.

Another area of uncertainty concerns the extent to which it is necessary, in order for an area of skill or ability to be influenced by innate gifts that have a selective effect in that particular domain, for that skill to be a `natural’ one, in the sense of performing some kind of adaptive function that is sufficiently important for human survival to have been affected by selective evolutionary pressures. To the extent that this was the case, innate gifts for, say, running, fighting or swimming would be more likely to be identified than, say, an innate gift for playing chess. However, deciding on the naturalness or otherwise of human skills is not always straightforward, one reason being that broader skill or abilities that are ostensibly `unnatural’ may be largely composed of `natural’ component skills, as is the case in `unnatural’ sports such as tennis or football in which `natural’ qualities such as speed and coordination are critical. A further complication is that in addition to the possibility that innate gifts and talents may influence performance, there are a number of other ways in which individuals may be innately predisposed towards certain activities and abilities. For example, various physical parameters such as size and strength can influence a person’s effectiveness at running and fighting. Similarly, a person’s likelihood of becoming a good chess player may be affected (but not selectively) by some of the numerous consequences of innate differences in general intellectual ability. These instances point to the need to keep in mind the fact that questions concerning the conceivable roles of innate gifts and talents refer to only some of the possible ways in which differences between people in their innate endowments may contribute to differences in their eventual capabilities.

As mentioned earlier, having for the purposes of the present investigation insisted on investing the concepts of innate abilities and talents with at least some attributes that correspond to those implied by everyday users of the terms, it is necessary to confirm that scientific researchers who have a serious interest in understanding the causes of exceptional abilities do use such terms with similar implications in mind. We should not insist on the presence of attributes which although assumed to be present by many lay users would be regarded by most researchers as having little scientific credibility. It is conceivable that serious researchers might only introduce the terms `gifted’ and `talented’ to describe someone’s performance, rather than to predict or explain. It is also possible that a researcher might use these words simply as synonyms for `able’ or `competent’, possibly intending to be explanatory only in the vaguest sense and simply implying that the person has `whatever it takes’ to be unusually competent in an area of expertise, and perhaps pointing to the likely involvement of unspecified biological sources of variability among the causal processes. It must be said, however, that using the term `innate gift’ when having the only latter denotation in mind would display a somewhat eccentric utilization of those, to the extent that one might possibly be accused of saying one thing and meaning another.

In fact, however, even a cursory examination of the ways in which words such as `gift’, `talent’ and `aptitude’ are actually introduced by leading researchers who study high levels of ability and have a serious commitment to investigating the underlying causes, reveals that when they choose to use the words `gifted’ and `talented’ (rather than descriptive terms such as `excellent’, `highly capable’, `outstanding’ or `exceptional’), they regularly do so with a clear intention to predict or explain, or both. For example, David Feldman (1988), writing about child prodigies, remarks that “it is not obvious what their talents will lead to” (p. 281), and insists that it is essential that “the child must possess talent, and it must be very powerful” (p. 280). For Feldman talent is something that cannot be acquired and must be `possessed’ innately by prodigies, who Feldman believes demonstrate “exceptional pretuning to an already existing body of knowledge, one that countless others had spent time and energy developing and refining” (p. 278). Similarly, Howard Gardner (1993a) equates talent with early potential, noting that “a poignant state of affairs results when an individual of high talent and promise ends up failing to achieve that potential” (p. 176). For Gardner, giftedness is defined as a sign of precocious biopsychological potential in a particular domain (Gardner, 1993b). The possession of “a strong gift in a specific domain, be it dance, chess or mathematics” is recognised by Gardner when there is a coincidence of factors, the first of which is `native talent’ (p. 51). According to him, individuals who accomplish a great deal are people who were `at promise’ in relevant areas from early in life. For Kurt Heller (1993 p.𧆋), too, `scientific giftedness’ is an explanatory concept “which can be defined as scientific thinking potential or as a special talent to excel in (natural sciences)”. Douglas Detterman (1993 p. 234) asserts, similarly, that “innate ability is what you are talking about when you are talking about talent”. Hans Eysenck claims that there is a strong genetic determination to all the variables associated with giftedness (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993), and insists on the existence of genetically transmitted talents, which he regards as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of genius (Eysenck, 1995). Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski (1993) agree that talent is explicitly biological: they claim that “people are born into this world with some biological predispositions” (p. 65). Françoys Gagné (1993), following a careful survey of the use of terms like `aptitude’, `gifted’ and `talented’ by experts and lay persons, concludes for a quality to be defined as a gift or aptitude by academic users of those words it has to have a genetic basis and involve more than just acquired knowledge or skill. Ellen Winner (1996; Winner & Martino, 1993) regards gifts and talents as unlearned domain-specific traits which may develop or `come to fruition’ in favourable circumstances but cannot be manufactured. Talents are likely to be identified or by parents or teachers or they may be discovered fortuitously (Winner & Martino, 1993, p. 259). According to Winner, many gifted children go unrecognised because their parents fail to notice or encourage their ability.

The above quotations make it clear that researchers and experts not only do make regular and extensive use of terms like `gift’ and `talent’, but also do rely on those terms in their efforts to predict exceptional abilities in individuals and explain their causes. The fact that researchers as well as practitioners depend upon these concepts provides a strong reason for taking a direct approach to the question of whether or not there exist qualities that coincide with the notions of inborn gifts and talents, despite the obstacles that are likely to be encountered as a result of the fact that these concepts resist definitions that are simple, universally agreed-upon by all users, and expressed in terms that are unambiguous and open to straightforward quantification. Faced with a situation in which scientists as well as lay people frequently introduce the terms `gift’ and `talent’ with explanatory or predictive intents, and in which their doing so has important practical implications for numerous children, one cannot choose to ignore the question of whether or not these concepts actually correspond to qualities that have a real influence on human abilities simply because that question is not, from a purely scientific perspective, a tidy or convenient one to resolve. Some previous enquiries into assumptions about innate gifts and talents have concentrated on the field of music, in which the belief that the possession of special innate gifts is essential for high levels of accomplishment has been influential, for instance in decision-making concerning the allocation of limited teaching resources (Sloboda, Davidson & Howe, 1994a; 1994b). These authors have argued that there are strong grounds for questioning the view that attributes musical expertise to the presence of innate gifts. The grounds include the fact that in some non-Western cultures musical achievements are considerably more widespread than in our own (Blacking, 1973; Feld, 1984; Marshall, 1982; Merriam, 1967; Messenger, 1958), the apparent absence of early signs of unusual excellence in outstanding adult instrumentalists (Sosniak, 1985), and the finding that very early experiences may be the cause of certain phenomena that might appear to confirm the innate talent viewpoint (Hepper, 1991; Parncutt, 1993). Other scientists have disagreed with this analysis, arguing that the evidence of strong cultural influences on musicality is not impossible to reconcile with the suggestion that innate differences are important (Davies, 1994), and suggesting that Sloboda et al. (1994a) attach too much importance to the fact that musicians can emerge from non-musical families (Radford, 1994) and are too inclined to deny the importance of inherited influences (Torff & Winner, 1994), and Hargreaves (1994) has commented on the educational implications of Sloboda et al.’s (1994a) challenge to the innate gifts approach.

Criticisms of the view that innate gifts and talents are a necessary influence on high achievements in areas of competence other than music have been advanced by Ericsson and Charness (1995a; 1995b), who provide substantial evidence supporting their claim that the effects of extended deliberate practice are more far-reaching that is commonly believed. These authors assert that the traditional view of talent, according to which successful individuals have special innate capacities, is not consistent with research findings. They also argue that although children undoubtedly differ in their skill and ease at performing various skills (as Gardner, 1995, has noted in challenging the conclusions of Ericsson and Charness), it has not proved possible to identify early predictors of adult performance, and they demonstrate that differences in practice and training over periods of years are a major cause of differences in adult performance.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it should be noted that the present authors see no objection to the use of terms such as gifted and talented for purely descriptive purposes, as when the statement that young people are talented is intended to be synonymous with calling them `promising’, and implies no more than that have made the good early progress, possibly displaying unusual excellence or fluency, that encourages high expectations for the future


The belief that exceptional human abilities reflect the contribution of innate gifts and talents would not be widespread were it not for the existence of a considerable amount of apparently confirmatory evidence. The fact that there is a degree of continuity in human development (Bornstein & Sigman, 1986; see also the reviews by Columbo, 1993 and Slater, 1995) is not inconsistent with the view that innate gifts are important. Although across-age correlations rarely account for more than a small proportion of the variance in infants’ and young children’s accomplishments, it is conceivable that there exist as-yet-unidentified sub-groups of favoured infants in whom very early performance is an excellent predictor of later accomplishments. Findings that seem to confirm the existence of gifts and talents take a number of forms. First, there are numerous accounts of children acquiring impressive skills very early in life, in the apparent absence of opportunities for the kinds of learning experiences that would normally be necessary in order for such expertise to be gained. Secondly, there is evidence concerning the existence of certain somewhat unusual capacities which could have an innate basis, such as `perfect’ pitch perception, which seems to emerge spontaneously in a few children and appears to increase the likelihood of an individual reaching a high level of accomplishment in a particular area of achievement. Thirdly, the possibility of specific biologically-rooted gifts or talents existing is further indicated by various kinds of evidence pointing to the involvement of biological correlates of particular skills and abilities. Fourthly, some especially compelling data pointing to specific facilitation of skill acquisition in particular domains is encountered in a few case histories of autistic, mentally-handicapped individuals classified as `idiots savants’.

2.1 Evidence of skills emerging unusually early

Among the abundant reports of child prodigies (see, e.g., Feldman, 1980, 1986; Fowler, 1981; Freeman, 1990; Goldsmith, 1990; Gross, 1993a; 1993b; Hollingworth, 1942; Howe, 1982; 1990a; 1993; 1995; Radford, 1990) there are accounts of extraordinarily precocious development in the earliest years. For example, very early language skills are described by Fowler (1981) in a boy who was said to have begun speaking at five months of age, to have had a 50-word vocabulary a month later, and a speaking knowledge of five languages as well as a reading ability in three of them before the age of three. A report by Feldman (1986) describes a boy who was said by his parents to have begun to speak in sentences at three months of age, to engage in conversations at six months, and read simple books by his first birthday. Hollingworth (1942) mentions that Francis Galton was reputed to be reading in his third year, and refers to accounts claiming, for example, that a child born in the early eighteenth century could read fluently in Latin, French and German before his fifth birthday.

However, in none of these cases was the reported very early explosion of language skills directly observed by the investigator. As Hollingworth (1942) noted, all the early studies were retrospective, and most were undertaken many years after the events they describe. The accounts are essentially anecdotal, and unaccompanied by any evidence of reliable assessment or analysis. The more recent studies have similar limitations. The boy described by Feldman, for instance, was not actually encountered by Feldman himself until he had reached the age of three. Although the boy’s parents told Feldman that they were surprised by their child’s swift progress and said that they were entirely unprepared for it, it is clear from Feldman’s report that from the child’s earliest days these parents had done as much as they could to give their child a particularly stimulating and encouraging environment. Feldman describes his being taken aback by the parents’ absolute dedication, and comments on their “unending quest for stimulating and supportive environments” (Feldman, 1986, p. 36).

In these studies it is virtually always the case that the reports of a child’s phenomenal early progress have been provided by the parents, and that the author of the report has not observed the child until appreciably later, if at all (Fowler, 1981). Fowler notes that whilst the parents have tended to portray themselves as having made no active contribution to their child’s abilities, simply looking on in wonder, their professed passivity is often belied by the fact that their descriptions contain detailed information about the child’s achievements which could never have been obtained without a substantial investment of time and considerable planning. For instance, one pair of parents insisted that their daughter learned to read entirely unaided and claimed that they only realized this when they discovered her reading Heidi at the age of four, but it turned out that they had kept elaborate records of the child’s accomplishments, such as the precise letters she had learned at various ages. It is hard to see how parents who have devoted as much time as these people did to making detailed records of their child’s progress could have possibly avoided becoming actively involved in the child’s early learning.

Accounts of the early lives of musicians provide further anecdotes of the apparently spontaneous flowering of impressive abilities at remarkably early ages (Hargreaves, 1986; Radford, 1990; Shuter-Dyson & Gabriel, 1981; Sloboda, 1985; Winner & Martino, 1993). A number of prominent composers were regarded as prodigies in their childhoods, and in some cases there are reports of unusual musical competence in their earliest years. Mozart’s early feats are widely known, and it is reported that the Hungarian music prodigy Erwin Nyiregyhazi was able to reproduce simple songs at the age of two and play tunes on a mouth organ at four (Revesz, 1925). Again, however, most of the reports are based upon anecdotes reported many years after the early childhood events were said to have taken place. Some of the early childhood accounts are autobiographical, such as Stravinsky’s description of having amazed his parents by imitating local singers as a two-year-old (Gardner, 1984) or Arthur Rubenstein’s claim to have mastered the piano before he could speak, and the validity of the reports is called into question by the fact that childhood `memories’ of the first three years are not at all reliable (see, for example, Usher & Neisser, 1993). It is also apparent that from a very early age these children were given special opportunities and considerable encouragement. In many cases the emergence of skills that were at all remarkable followed rather than preceded a period of some time during which not only were unusual opportunities provided, but there was a firm expectation that the child would do well. An examination of biographical evidence concerning the early lives of prominent composers revealed that there were invariably opportunities for the child to have had supervised practice sessions (Lehmann, 1995).

There are also some descriptions of extraordinarily precocious ability in the visual arts, although such reports are fairly rare: even amongst the great artists few are known to have produced drawings or paintings that display exceptional promise prior to the age of eight years or so (Winner & Martino, 1993). However, Winner (1996) suggests that the absence of evidence may be indicative not of a lack of early talents as such but of certain cultural factors, such as a lack of interest in early precursors of artistic achievement and a related failure to notice signs of artistic talent in young children. Winner has collected a number of drawings of shapes by two-, three- and three-year-olds that are much more realistic than those of average children as much as two years older. The causes of such precociousness are not fully understood.

2.2 Evidence of special capacities that facilitate acquisition of specific abilities

For many people a belief in innate gifts and talents is bolstered by the conviction that for certain individuals the process of acquiring an ability is more fluent and less effortful than for ordinary people. Such individual differences are real enough, but in many cases these are as much an outcome of previous achievements as they are influential upon new ones. Even if the story of Mozart’s composing the overture to Don Giovanni in one short night is true, it is important to appreciate that, as Perkins (1981) observes, a person’s observed fluency at one stage of a creative achievement may only be possible because the individual can build on the products of many hours’ long and painful unobserved efforts.

The fact that one person gains a skill more readily than another cannot on its own provide proof of the existence of a special innate gift. Differences between people in the ease in which a particular skill is acquired may be caused by any of a number of contributing factors, including motivational and personality influences and differences in the extent to which past learning experiences have prepared people by enabling them to acquire knowledge, skills and self-confidence that facilitate acquisition of the new skill. We are aware of no convincing evidence of the kinds of large unexplained differences in the ease of acquiring a particular skill that could be regarded as providing a clear indication of the existence of a some kind of special propensity homologous with the concept of a gift or talent.

The clearest indication of a particular capacity that is possessed by a few individuals but not by the majority, appears early in a child’s life, is apparently gained in the absence of deliberate efforts to acquire it, and gives its possessor a clear advantage that might be expected to make further advances likely, is encountered in the field of music. A number of young children are found to have what is known as `perfect’ or `absolute’ pitch perception. A child thus endowed can name individual heard pitches and accurately sing specified pitches on demand (Sloboda, 1985) as well as having the ability to label the pitch of any sound, musical or not. Being able to do these things would appear to convey a number of advantages. It would seem quite likely that, other things being equal, those musicians who have absolute pitch would be more successful than those who do not. As it happens, however, that turns out not to be entirely true, partly because perfect pitch perception has strictly circumscribed utility, making no contribution to an individual’s ability to synthesize the notes of musical expression and produce a rule-based musical performance. Moreover, the case for the capacity being regarded as an exemplar of a gift is undermined by the fact that although it usually appears early in life, an observation that has been taken to indicate that its origins that are largely innate, perfect pitch perception has nevertheless been found to be an essentially learned skill. It is not very rare in young musicians who are given extensive musical training prior to the age of five or six, but is less often gained by individuals who begin their training substantially later (Sergent & Roche, 1973), although it can be acquired by older musicians, albeit only with considerable deliberate effort (Brady, 1970; Sloboda, 1985; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993). Structural differences in external brain morphology related to perfect pitch have been observed, with musicians having perfect pitch showing stronger leftward planum temporale asymmetry than non-musicians and musicians without perfect pitch (Schlaug, Jänke, Huang & Steinmetz, 1995). It is not clear to what extent the structural differences observed by Schlaug et al. are a fundamental cause of perfect pitch perception or the outcome in differences in learning or experience. That absolute pitch perception is more readily learned early in life rather than later may be largely due to the fact that a young person is more likely to pay careful attention to the precise sounds of individual notes before (rather than after) becoming accustomed to perceive particular sounds as parts of larger musical structures (Ericsson & Faivre, 1988). In short, although perfect pitch perception presents the appearance of being an innate gift-like phenomenon, in reality that may not be the case.

Eidetic imagery is another phenomenon that might conceivably be indicative of an innate facilitator of certain abilities, and which like perfect pitch perception is observed in some young children but not others and appears in the absence of deliberate learning. Eidetic imagery seems to make young children capable of recalling visual information in some detail, in a way that broadly coincides with the idea of a `photographic memory’. However, research has shown the phenomenon to be somewhat fleeting and hard to verify with certainty, commonly encountered in children with below- rather than above-average abilities, and conveying few if any practical benefits to those children who experience it. Although as a subjective experience the phenomenon of eidetic imagery appears to be genuine, firm evidence that experiencing eidetic imagery is correlated with above average recall performance has proved elusive (Haber, 1979; Haber & Haber, 1988). First appearances notwithstanding, on closer examination it is hard to see any firm justification for believing that the presence of eidetic imagery in a child is indicative of an innate special endowment that specific abilities could build upon.

2.3 Evidence of biological involvement in exceptional skills

Since all human performance is rooted in biology, all behaviour must have a biological substrate. A large body of mainly correlational research findings testifies to the involvement of the brain in behaviour, and demonstrates numerous relationships between various indications of physical brain structure, function and activity and a number of indications of psychological performance. Performance has been linked to EEG measures such as evoked potentials (Hendrikson & Hendrikson, 1980) and related wave forms such as the P-300 evoked potential component (McCarthy & Donchin, 1981), indications of hemispheric lateralization (Gazzaniga, 1985), evidence produced by brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance spectroscopy and magnetic resonance imaging, and indications of saccadic activity (see Eysenck & Barrett, 1993).

It is not uncommon to find correlations between differences in measures of physical levels or activities and indications of differences in human performance. A number of probable correlates of high ability have been identified, including left-handedness, the presence of immune disorders, myopia (see Benbow & Lubinski, 1993) blood flow measures (Horn, 1986), magnitude of cortical neurones (Scheibel & Paul, 1985), high allergy rates, uric-acid levels and glucose metabolism rates (see Storfer, 1990), as well as various indicators related to hemispherization, such as enhanced right-hemispheric functioning, interhemispheric information exchange and synchronisation of hemispheric activities (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993; Fischer, Hunt & Randhawa, 1982). It is likely that prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone is a contributing factor (Geschwind & Behan, 1982). Benbow & Lubinski (1993) observed especially high levels of EEG activity in able mathematicians, and relatively high levels of activation localized in the frontal lobes, compared with temporal lobe activity. In connection with their interest in mathematical abilities, Benbow and Lubinski assert that these results are sufficiently consistent with the suggestion that different patterns of brain activity and inhibition may underly precocity to justify further research by psychophysiologists and neuropsychologists. It is probable that the (heritable) sex differences in spatial abilities (Vandenberg, 1966; Humphreys, Lubinski & Yao, 1993) that contribute to the sex differences in mathematical performance observed by Benbow and her colleagues are to some extent the outcome of biological differences between the sexes (Lytton & Romney, 1991; Collaer and Hines, 1995). Information processing parameters that are involved in a number of human abilities, such as speed of response, are at least moderately hereditable (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal and Tellegen, 1990), and inherited determinants may underly various differences between more and less competent individuals, such as differences in working memory characteristics of children with varying intellectual talents (Dark & Benbow, 1991) and the enhanced ability to manipulate information in short-term memory that has been observed in young people who are unusually successful at mathematics (Dark & Benbow, 1990). Moreover, since there are modest positive correlations between measures of performance at particular skills and scores on measures of heritable basic abilities such as general intelligence (Ackerman, 1988; Howe, 1989b), it is more than likely that some of the innate influences that contribute to variability in intelligence test scores also contribute to individual differences in particular skills. In general, the correlational evidence linking performance to physical attributes of the brain is consistent with the assertion that biological differences that have an innate component contribute to variability in the extent to which people acquire high levels of expertise in particular areas of competence.

However, as is demonstrated below, it is unwise to rush to the conclusion that where physical and psychological measures are correlated the physical attributes must occupy an early position in any causal chain that may link them. Also, there is a large gulf between identifying physical correlates of behavioural differences and discovering a dimension of physical variability that has the kind of predictable specific influence on individuals’ performance levels in a particular domain that would justify a claim to have identified the physical basis of a gift or talent. Typically, the relationships between different levels of analysis are insufficiently direct and too complicated for it to be easy to delineate clear uni-directional causal linkages between physical brain events and exceptional degrees of expertise in individual people. Moreover, correlations between measures of brain activity and scores on intellectual tests tend to reduce as the tasks become more complex (Sternberg, 1993), a finding that provides no grounds for optimism concerning the possibility of mapping those causal links between physiological functioning and the high levels of ability that might appear be indicative of the presence of an innate gift.

For a physical measure of brain structure or activity to be regarded as indicative of a process or mechanism having the properties of an innate gift or talent there would need to be (1) some degree of clarity about the direction of causality, (2) indications that the physical quality being measured is innately determined (as distinct from being the outcome rather than the cause of differences in individuals’ experiences) as well as evidence that (3) any such influence is specific to a particular field of ability (and preferably relatively direct),and (4) selectively facilitates expertise in a minority of individuals. In addition, it would be reasonable to assert that physical evidence of a gift or talent existed only if (5) the physical measures reliably predicted unusually high attainments by individuals at tasks that were indicative of special excellence or expertise in particular areas of competence. We are unaware of any findings that point to the existence of physical indicators that come close to meeting even half of these requirements. Indeed, studies of pre-natal capacities (Hepper, 1993; Lecanuet, 1995) and post-natal cognition (Papousek, 1995; Trehub, 1990), have encountered little evidence of any early physical precursors of specific abilities such as musical ones.

There is a tendency to assume that evidence of physical differences between individuals of differing ability identifies determinants that are to some extent immutable or occupy an early point in a causal chain. Ericsson (1990; Ericsson & Crutcher, 1988) has shown that, contrary to this view, apparent evidence of structural precursors may need to be interpreted with caution. He surveys some findings that ostensibly demonstrate the influence upon specific abilities of endogenous individual differences in anatomical structure. Differences between people in the composition of certain muscles are reliably predictive of differences in athletic performance, and it has been widely accepted that this fact provides supporting evidence for the view that the performance differences are underpinned by structural differences that are innate and largely genetic in origin. For instance, in order to be successful at long-distance running it is essential for the athlete to have muscles in which an unusually large proportion of the fibres are ones that are known as `slow-twitch’ fibres, so it appears that a genetic (structural) determinant of success has been identified. However, as Ericsson points out, this account and its implications are called into question by further research which has demonstrated that differences in the proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres are largely the result of extended practice at running, and not the initial cause of ability differences. Differences between athletes and others in their proportions of particular kinds of muscle fibres are specific to those muscles that are most fully exercised in athletes’ training for their specific specialisation, and when an athlete stops training there are substantial decreases in the proportion of slow-twitch fibres in those muscles most exercised in the training sessions (Howald, 1982).

Differences between people in brain structure may also be the outcome of differences in experiences rather than a primary cause of individual variability, and experience can produce changes in various parts of the mammalian brain, including the somatosensory, visual, and auditory systems (Elbert, Pantev, Wienbruch, Rockstroh & Taub, 1995). These authors have observed that in violinists and other string players the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand (which are involved in fingering the strings) is larger than in control subjects, the magnitude of the difference being correlated with the age at which string players began instruction. Elbert et al. consider a possible genetic explanation, but conclude that, since (1) amount of cortical reorganization is correlated with age, and (2) the difference takes the one direction that is consistent with the possibility of expansion having taken place, it is more likely that the cortical territory of the left-hand digits has expanded, presumably as an outcome of experience. It is also possible that differences in early musical learning experiences account for the finding by Schlaug et al. (1995) that high musical ability is associated with atypical brain structure in the form of stronger than average leftward planum temporale asymmetry.

The fact that there is abundant evidence of a genetic contribution to human intelligence provides another finding that is consistent with the view that genetic differences may help to account for high levels of ability in specific domains. However, the likelihood that evidence of the genetic contribution to general intelligence has firm implications for questions about the possible role of identifiable innate talents and gifts as such, defined as having effects that are predictable and at least somewhat specific, is called into question by a substantial body of evidence showing that correlations between general intelligence and various specific abilities are often small or non-existent (Ceci, 1990; Ceci & Liker, 1986, Howe, 1989c; 1990b; Keating, 1984). In many circumstances general intelligence does not limit final levels of skilled performance (Ackerman, 1988), and a number of researchers have questioned the view that the existence of a general intelligence factor (“g”) has direct bearing on questions about the causes of individual differences in abilities (Brynnner & Romney, 1986; Horn, 1986; Howe, 1989c). Moreover, it is questionable whether there are particular genes that affect levels of above-average performance at particular skills in the predictable and selective manner that would be indicative of the presence of an influence corresponding to the notion of a gift or talent. It is more likely that psychological qualities are indirectly influenced by genetic influences known as quantitative trait loci that affect human characteristics in a probabilistic rather than a predetermined manner (Plomin & Thompson, 1993). As Plomin & Thompson observe, even with general intelligence most of the research addresses the aetiology of differences between individuals within the normal range of ability, and little is known about the possible genetic origins of high ability levels. Knowledge about the genetic causation of specific abilities is particularly restricted (Plomin, 1988, Thompson & Plomin, 1993). In a study of musical abilities in twins, Coon & Carey (1989) found that the shared environment played a larger role than shared genes in determining the degree of similarity of twins in their musical skills. In those circumstances in which any formal instruction was provided, hereditability coefficients approached zero, suggesting that inherited influences were making only a small contribution to the abilities of those children who received musical training.

The applicability of the limited knowledge that exists concerning genetic influences on exceptional specialised abilities is restricted by the fact that information concerning heritability refers to the probabilistic genetic influence for a population of individuals rather than the predetermined programming of an individual that is implied by the common belief that genes act on behaviour by imposing some kind of innate `blueprint’ (Thompson & Plomin, 1993). Neither the view that genetic influences on behaviour are immutable nor the belief that high levels of performance at particular abilities reflect the contribution of innate gifts and talents are supported by genetic findings.

2.4 Evidence of unusual capacities in autistic `savants’

Although in most case-histories of so-called `idiots savants’ it is apparent that the emergence of special skills has been accompanied by obsessive interest and very high degrees of practice (see, for example Sloboda, Hermelin & O’Connor, 1985; Howe & Smith, 1988; Howe, 1989a; 1989b) there a few reports of mentally handicapped children who have displayed specific skills that are indisputably superior to those observed in even the most able children of comparable ages, and which have apparently been acquired in the absence of deliberate training or instruction. Among the well-documented cases are those of two child artists and a young musician, all of whom were described as being autistic as well as having a combination of very low measured intelligence and severely impaired language development.

From the age of four, one of the artists, a girl named Nadia, who was unusually slow and clumsy, spoke hardly at all, drew numerous remarkable pictures, usually of horses, birds and other animals, with a ballpoint pen. Her pictures display the use of techniques to represent perspective and proportion, foreshortening and the illusion of movement, in addition to her impressive manual dexterity, and these pictures contrast vividly with the schematic, rigid and stereotyped drawings that are almost universal in children of Nadia’s age (Selfe, 1977). At school, Nadia was unresponsive to social approaches and spent much of her time staring into space or wondering aimlessly around. The drawing skills of the other child artist, Stephen Wiltshire, were at least equally impressive (O’Connor & Hermelin, 1987; Sacks, 1995).

Like Nadia and Stephen, a five-year-old boy described in Leon Miller’s (1989) study of musical abilities in mentally handicapped individuals was autistic, and he was also largely unresponsive to his physical environment and very severely retarded in language development, with practically no speech. However, when confronted with a piano keyboard he could not only reproduce a heard melody but also transform the piece by transposing it to a different key, incorporating unexpected modulations in the harmonic structure, adding left-hand chords, and incorporating new elements, such as minor thirds which he introduced to replace the major thirds of the original. In other words, he could improvise in ways that conformed to the conventions of musical composition. Miller also examined the performance of some other musical savants, and established that their abilities sometimes extended beyond simple mimicry and displayed extemporisational skills similar to those of highly competent adult musicians. The abilities Miller observed seem to depend on a capacity to encode the fundamental units quickly and efficiently and represent musical items in a complex knowledge system that involves sensitivity to harmonic relationships, scale or key constraints, and melodic structure, as well as sensitivity to the various rules reflecting the structure inherent in a musical composition.

The underlying causes of the capacities of autistic musicians such as the one studied by Miller and artists such as Nadia, Stephen, and a small number of comparable others (see Selfe, 1983; Howe, 1989a; Treffert, 1989; Winner, 1993) may coincide in some respects with the definition of gifts (by Winner, Gagné and others) as innate abilities or proclivities to learn in a particular domain. At least in the cases of Nadia and the five-year-old boy described by Miller, their observed level of performance was beyond anything encountered in non-autistic children of comparable ages. Exactly why these children could do things that others cannot remains largely a matter for speculation. It appears that there is an obsessional motivation to engage in one particular activity, probably resulting in large amounts of attention to or practice at the relevant skills. Why some children develop such obsessions is not clear. For some or other reason some kind of aberrant or premature process of modularization might occur, whereby cortical capacities are pressed into action to be used exclusively for particular kinds of processing, involving restricted kinds of information. There may be a linkage between these children’s special abilities and their lack of language, and it is possible that normal intellectual abilities may be pre-empted by mental resources which are normally utilised for semantic processing being in some way `captured’ for other uses, although the nature of the causal linkages is unknown.

In certain respects the apparently involuntary `specialisation’ in a particular domain at which these rare children excel matches the conceptualization of innate gifts as special proclivities that incline certain individuals towards becoming highly accomplished in particular fields of ability, although it is important to appreciate that these individuals pay the heavy price of being autistic, being gravely handicapped in a number of ways. However, in two important respects the patterns of ability in these children do not appear to be indicative of the presence of innate gifts. First, there is no firm evidence that the causes are innate, and if they do have an innate component its effects could have been to add to the individuals’ obsessionality rather than their specific skills as such. Secondly, if the skills of a child such as Nadia were the result of an innate gift it would have been possible to predict that she would develop artistic skills, but this was not the case.


Following Section 2, which described various kinds of evidence that has been thought to support the view that innate gifts and talents play a role, the present section cites a variety of findings which appear inconsistent with the that view, or fail to support it. Other reasons for questioning the innate talent viewpoint are also introduced.

3.1 Lack of early signs

As was apparent in Section 2.1, much of the evidence pointing to exceptionally early indications of unusual abilities is either retrospective or based upon contemporaneous records supplied by parents whose claims to have played no active role in stimulating their child’s progress are belied by other information. Except in the case of a small number of autistic children mentioned in Section 2.4, there is a lack of firm evidence of exceptional very early progress in specific areas of ability in the absence of above-average degrees of parental support and encouragement. That is not to say that parental support provides the sole explanation of above-average progress, and it is very unlikely that task-specific practice can account for early precocity, especially when that takes the form of high general intelligence, as is demonstrated by the finding that basic cognitive processes are implicated in individual differences (Keating and Bobbitt, 1978; Siegler & Kotovsky, 1986). Of course, whilst the absence of early signs of special ability may be interpreted as a lack of findings tending to support or confirm the view that innate talents contribute to abilities, it cannot be seen as contradicting that view: innate talents might operate in ways that do not produce early signs, for instance by influencing early development in ways that searches for early signs fail to detect, or by influencing achievements only at a later stage. However, in order for there to be the kind of indication of the existence of an innate talent that would required for the talent identification process that is necessary for predictions about individual progress to be possible, some or other relatively early evidence of the presence of a talent would appear to be essential. That does not rule out the possibility of there being biological determinants of unusually high abilities that cannot be detected prior to the emergence of high levels of skill, but for definitional reasons that were provided in Section 1, in the absence of other confirmatory evidence such unidentifiable influences cannot be considered to be manifestations of innate gifts and talents.

Here we first consider some studies in which investigators have made systematic efforts to discover whether children who by mid-childhood or older have been identified as being unusually capable in one or other domain of ability have, as young children, displayed any early signs of having special potential other than ones initiated by early parental training or special encouragement. In common with the investigations yielding apparently confirmatory findings, the studies that have produced contradictory evidence are not without flaws, a major limitation being that some of the evidence is retrospective.

The discovery of spontaneously emerging early signs that reliably herald high levels of achievement at specific abilities would provide evidence consistent with the existence of the qualities implicit in the idea of a talent or gift. However, it is important to keep in mind that the early appearance of an ability would not by itself form firm evidence for the presence of an innate talent unless the ability emerged in the absence of special opportunities to learn. Otherwise faulty implications might be drawn. For example, until quite recently it was widely assumed that since infants in certain parts of Africa are known to exhibit skills such as sitting and walking appreciably earlier than European children, the causes must lie in genetic factors. But research by Charles Super (1976) showed this inference to be false. Super, who studied infants in a Kenyan tribe, confirmed that they did indeed gain motor capacities such as walking, standing and sitting without support a month or so earlier than children in other continents, but he also discovered that the only skills that these infants acquired earlier than others were ones that their mothers deliberately taught them. When genetically similar infants from the same tribe were brought up in an urban environment where parents did not provide the special training given in traditional villages, the infants displayed no precocity at all at those motor skills at which the traditionally-raised infants excelled. Further evidence that the early skills can be largely the outcome of training was provided by Super’s observation that there was a correlation of -.9 between the age at which a baby began to crawl and a measure of the extent to which parents provided opportunities designed to encourage crawling. Super’s findings do not contradict the possibility that many early-emerging differences do result partly or wholly from innate biological causes (Rosser & Randolph, 1989), but they establish that it cannot be automatically assumed, in the absence of additional evidence, that biological factors are the cause of demonstrable early differences.

Evidence from a number of interview studies examining the early progress of individuals who eventually became exceptionally competent has provided surprisingly little support for the view that early signs of special potential are at all common. Twenty-one outstanding American pianists in their mid-thirties, who were on the brink of careers as concert pianists, were interviewed at length by Sosniak (1985; 1990), who also talked to their parents. The parents reported few signs of the musicians being exceptional while they were still very young, and unusually fast progress followed rather than preceded a combination of good opportunities and vigorous encouragement. Even by the time the young pianists had been involved in around six years of relatively intensive training, it would have been possible to make confident predictions about their eventual success in only a tenth of these young people, all of whom did eventually achieve exceptional levels of competence. Similarly, a biographical study of 165 professional musicians in Poland produced very few reports of any pre-school behaviour that appeared to be predictive of unusual musicality (Manturzewska, 1986), and a longitudinal investigation of elite German tennis players elicited no early indications of basic capacities that predicted tennis performance in early adulthood (Schneider, 1993; see also Monsaas, 1985). Early signs and indications of exceptional promise preceding deliberate parental encouragement in particular fields are similarly absent in the findings of interview studies covering the family backgrounds and childhood progress of young people who eventually became exceptionally accomplished in other areas of accomplishment, such as art (Sloane & Sosniak, 1985), Swimming (Kalinowski, 1985) and Mathematics (Gustin, 1985).

Questions designed to elicit information about possible early signs of giftedness were included in an interview study involving 42 young people who had successfully competed for admission to a highly selective British music school (Howe & Sloboda, 1991a; 1991b; 1991c; Sloboda & Howe, 1991). The parents of half the children were also interviewed. These parents recalled very few unusual spontaneous musical responses or behaviour during the early years. In a third of the children some early experimentation at an instrument was reported, and early singing as toddlers was remarked upon in about one child in seven. However, within the sample there were no differences in the number of reports of early musical responses between those young people in the sample whose musical ability was rated as being more or less exceptionally able, and in no single case was an early activity reported that was strikingly different from the kinds of behaviours exhibited by many children who do not become competent musicians. A subsequent study (Howe, Davidson, Moore & Sloboda, 1995) incorporated control groups making it possible to compare the form and frequency of possible early signs in 257 children, only some of whom subsequently made unusually good progress as performing musicians. The investigators specifically asked the parents to indicate whether or not particular behaviours that were possibly indicative of musical potential or promise had occurred, and if so, when. The parents were asked to say when their child first sang, if and when he or she was first observed to move to music, give any indication of having a liking form music, display a high degree of attentiveness to music, or make any request for involvement in a musical activity. Only in the first of these behaviours, early singing, did those individuals who were eventually most successful at music display earlier onset than the other children. Moreover, questions about parent-initiated musical activities revealed that parents regularly sang to their infant well before any singing by the infant was observed, and that most of those children who sang earlier than the others had previously experienced a high degree of musical input from their parents.

Some authors have suggested that interest and delight in musical sounds may provide an early indication of musicality that might be indicative of some special innate potential (Miller, 1989; Winner & Martino, 1993). It is conceivable that even if there are no differences between children who eventually become good musicians and other children in early indications of musical promise as such, there may be early differences in liking for musical sounds or in attentiveness to music. However, the responses the questions in the study by Howe, Davidson, Moore & Sloboda (1995) that were designed to shed light on that issue provided no indication that early signs of liking or attending to music were predictors of later musical competence. In any case, the assumption that even very early preferences or signs of liking particular kinds of information are necessarily indicative of innate rather than learned qualities is questionable, since even in infants small differences in the amount of attention paid (for any of a number of reasons) to different kinds of stimuli may elicit progressively differing actions and responses, eventually producing marked preferences and indirectly contributing to differences between infants in their patterns of abilities (Renninger and Wosniak, 1985).

3.2 Evidence pointing to an absence of differences in ease of learning between `talented’ individuals and others

If innate gifts and talents contribute to excellence it would follow that a someone gifted in a particular area would be able to achieve a given level of competence, or make a given amount of progress, more readily than an untalented individual. There is no doubting that some individuals do progress at learning tasks faster than others, for numerous reasons, including differences in relevant prior knowledge and skills, differences in attentiveness, concentration and distractibility, motivational differences and differences in interest, competitiveness, self-confidence, fatigue, and in the appropriateness of training and the effectiveness of learning, practice and testing procedures. In order to provide an entirely fair test of the hypothesis that there exist differences in rate or ease of acquisition that reflect the interest of a specific innate talent it would be necessary to rule out sources of influence other than ones that could be said to have their origins in the talent which one is trying to detect. For obvious reasons doing that is not easy. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that even when task materials are simple and sufficiently familiar to all participants to appear to exclude differences in familiarity as a possible influence upon performance, differences in the degree of familiarity may nevertheless remain an influential source of performance variability. Chi & Ceci (1987) describe an experiment by K. Corsale and D.H. Gitomer in which it was discovered that differences in prior knowledge can be influential even with simple tasks in which participants are required to identify highly familiar digits. Participants who represent digits mentally on only the two dimensions of shape and odd-evenness are handicapped compared with individuals who can also represent the digits on additional dimensions, probably because being able to encode items on a larger number of dimensions implies the availability of a more elaborate network for encoding, making faster access possible (Miller & Gelman, 1983).

Investigations of long-term practising provide some evidence concerning the possibility that there are inherent individual differences in the ease of skill acquisition. In contrast with what might have been expected to happen if talents played a major part, Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore (1996; see also Sloboda, 1996) reported an absence of significant differences between highly successful young musicians and other children in the amount of practice time they required in order to make a comparable amount of progress between equivalent grades in the British musical board examinations. The differences between the young people in the amount of progress made were no more than would have been expected as an outcome of differences in the amount of time spent practising. Consistent with this result, the findings of an investigation of the early backgrounds and training of prominent composers (Hayes, 1981; see also Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996; Howe, 1996a; 1996b; in press) showed that in contradiction to the widespread belief that a small number of highly talented people can cut short the lengthy periods of training and preparation that others require in order to reach exceptional levels achievement, all major composers, with no exceptions, have required around at least ten years of concentrated training in order to reach the highest degrees of mastery. Similarly, chess players have almost always needed at least ten years of sustained preparation in order to reach international levels of competitiveness (Simon & Chase, 1973), and longer for those who begin in early childhood (Krogius, 1976). Comparably long periods of preparation and training are essential in order to achieve high standards in various other areas of accomplishment, including mathematics (Gustin, 1985) and X-ray and medical diagnosis (Patel & Groen, 1991) as well as a number of sports (Monsaas, 1985; Kalinowski, 1985; see also Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993).

3.3 Exceptional levels of performance in `untalented’ people

A body of findings that are hard to reconcile with the view that gifts or talents make an essential contribution to exceptional expertise in particular fields of ability takes the form of the results of experiments in which people who were not regarded as being specially talented have been given unusually large amount of training at particular skills, typically ones that make heavy demands upon memory (Chase & Ericsson, 1981; Ceci, Baker & Bronfenbrenner, 1988) or perception (Ericsson & Faivre, 1988). In some instances the outcome of such experiments has been for the trained individuals to reach levels of attainment that are far in excess of what most people (including experts in the psychology of learning and memory) have believed to be possible. Uninformed observers have been moved to volunteer the belief that the performers must have been in possession of some kind of innate aptitude. Similar findings attesting to extraordinarily high levels of task performance in situations where it is highly unlikely that innate gifts or talents are involved have been obtained in studies assessing the job-related skills of people employed as waiters (Ericsson & Polson, 1988) and bar staff (Bennett, 1983). The cocktail waitresses in Bennett’s study could regularly remember as many as twenty drink orders at a time, and their performance was considerably better than that of a control group made up of university students. One waitress, describing a New Year’s Eve when she was left on her own to take care of 150 customers, reported that by the end of the night she had known what every customer was drinking. Although it is just conceivable that people who are employed as waiters and bar staff gravitate to those kinds of jobs because they have a talent for the necessary skills, the findings of a number of studies by Ericsson and his colleagues in which memory skills have been explicitly trained (e.g. Chase & Ericsson, 1981) make it appear far more likely that employees become exceptionally good at remembering orders because of the considerable on-the-job practice they gain.

Investigations of non-Western cultures have provided numerous findings that appear to be incompatible with the suggestion that exceptional accomplishments always reflect the input of gifts and talents. Demonstrations that attainments that are rare or exceptional in one culture may be relatively commonplace in another culture form once source of evidence indicating that the kinds of special expertise often attributed to the influence of special gifts may readily be provided by appropriate learning experiences and training. For example, in certain cultures very high levels of skill (by Western standards) have been observed in children’s swimming and canoeing (Mead, 1975), land navigation over apparently featureless terrains (Lewis, 1976) and maritime navigation across open water. Also, in certain non-Western cultures musical attainments are considerably more widespread than in our own (Blacking, 1973; Sloboda, Davidson & Howe, 1994a; 1994b). It is of course entirely possible that inherited differences may contribute to the fact that certain accomplishments are more common in some cultures than in others, and the finding that cultural differences may extend to basic capacities underlying particular skills, as is demonstrated in the superior performance of Australian desert aboriginal children compared with white subjects at visual memory tasks (Kearins, 1981) is consistent with this possibility. However, in view of the previously-cited observation by Super (1976) that the precocious development of motor skills like sitting and walking in African infants disappeared when parents did not conform to traditional training customs, alternative explanations that attribute certain variations in performance largely to differences in opportunities to learn are somewhat convincing.

3.4 Other difficulties with the notion of gifts and talents

In addition to the challenges presented by contradictory evidence, there are also certain logical objections to the belief that qualities corresponding with the notion of a gift or talent have a contributory role in exceptional human abilities. In everyday discourse people’s stated justifications for believing that gifts and talents are an influential factor may involve a degree of circularity, the following `explanation’ being not at all untypical:

” She plays so well because she has a talent. How do I know she has a talent? That’s obvious, she plays so well!”

Even among researchers who introduce these concepts for explanatory purposes, the only firm evidence provided in support of the assertion that they exist at all takes the form of information about their alleged effects. In common with a number of scientific constructs, gifts and talents are not directly observed, but are inferred to be present on the basis of the existence of (observed) phenomena which cannot otherwise be explained. There is nothing objectionable about that, but if one is to infer the existence of a causal entity, and subsequently introduce it as an explanatory (yet unobserved) concept, it is essential to ensure in advance that the concept is a necessary one (Howe, 1988a; 1988b; 1990b; 1990c, 1996b; Sloboda et al., 1994a; 1994b). In particular, it is important to be certain that there are phenomena that need explaining and which cannot be explained in terms of other known and observable causes. In the case of gifts and talents it is our impression that this precaution has been neglected. That is, there has been a failure to establish whether or not the phenomena which innate gifts and talents are intended to explain definitely require any special explanation.

It is understandable that a person who lacks knowledge of the alternative possible causes of the phenomena attributed to the influence of gifts and talents may mistakenly infer that `special’ unseen causes are involved, just as someone may invoke miracles, `the stars’, `fate’ or the activities of extra-terrestrial beings to explain apparently mysterious events. Doing that is not uncommon in folk psychology. However, in the particular case of gifts and talents it is possible that a similar kind of folk psychology may have influenced some psychological researchers, who may have chosen to invoke innate gifts and talents as a cause of special abilities without having given adequate consideration to the possibility that there may be other explanations. The contributing influences are likely to include biological sources of variability, but ones that do not have the specific or predictable outcomes attributed to innate gifts and talents, and cannot be identified in the way that is assumed to be possible with innate gifts and talents. In other words, it is conceivable that, as an explanation and a predictor of future achievement, the concept of an innate gift or talent may be redundant.

In relation to certain areas of expertise, another concern is that from an evolutionary perspective there are doubts about the plausibility of innate gifts and talents. It is not easy to imagine how evolutionary mechanisms could produce substantial inborn differences between people in their potential for, say, chess. It is true, of course, that conditions may emerge that increase the likelihood of certain individuals succeeding at a particular `unnatural’ skill without that skill as such being subjected to a process of selection. For example, inborn differences that indirectly affect `natural’ spatial skills might contribute to gender differences in mathematical competence (Benbow & Lubinski, 1993; Geary, 1995). However, the possible implications of such a state of affairs appear to stop far short of the idea that natural selection could produce differences in people’s potentials that are as specific or predictable in their effects as gifts and talents are regarded as being.


Here we briefly discuss some of the evidence that appears to support the view that contrary to the theoretical position implied by the claim that innate gifts or talents make an essential contribution to exceptional abilities, the causes of such abilities may not be qualitatively different from those that are responsible for the less exceptional abilities of `ordinary’ people. Whilst passing over the substantial body of research examining the links between high abilities and the various kinds of experiences that promote learning (see Berry, 1990; Howe, 1990a), we shall consider some representative findings of research investigating the contribution of training and practice to various kinds of expertise. There is no intention to suggest that learning and practice are the sole determinants of human ability, or that biological differences between people either have no influence or are less important than ones that stem from an individual’s experiences.

There are numerous dimensions of human variability that may in certain circumstances produce consequences having implications for people’s different eventual patterns of abilities. For instance, differences in temperament, personality and motivation, and in concentration, alertness, attentiveness, distractibility, self-confidence, personal rhythms, competitiveness, enthusiasm, energy level, anxiety and level of optimism, any of which may be rooted in sources of variability that are at least partly innate, may in some circumstances have effects that may influence the acquisition human abilities. People are not born identical, and some of the dimensions in which they are not identical are likely to be significant at some point in helping to determine the nature and consequences of their learning experiences. Yet there is a vast gap between acknowledging this and insisting that people must be born with their future abilities already mapped out by any identifiable factors that are even remotely as specific in the form of their influences or predictable in their manner of action as gifts and talents are said to be, according to the explicit and implicit definitions given to these terms by practitioners and by psychological researchers, as was discussed in Sectionف. It should be emphasised, however, that in questioning the necessity for innate gifts and talents the present authors do not wish to quarrel with the legitimacy of using words such as `talented’ for purely descriptive purposes in which no explanation is implied.

4.1 Evidence from studies of practising

Some indications of the dramatic effects that training and practice can have on the abilities of people who have not been thought to possess innate talents were given in the previous section, which also provided indications of the perhaps surprising extent to which even those individuals who are believed to be exceptionally talented in any of a number of fields including music, mathematics, chess and various sports, depend upon lengthy periods of instruction. Evidence concerning the importance of practice is beginning to accumulate (see Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993 for a review), prompting Ericsson & Charness (1994) to conclude that the effects of extended deliberate practice are more far-reaching than is commonly believed. A limitation of the research is that only a small proportion of it addresses skills other than musical ones, although a number of investigations into the effects of practising in other areas of expertise such as chess (Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996) and sports (Starkes, Deakin, Allard & Hayes, 1996) have been undertaken. However, since music is an area of competence thought by young people and adults to be less amenable to practice and more dependent upon innate gifts than other fields of ability (Davis, 1994; O’Neill, 1994), it is reasonable to suppose that any effects of practice will be at least as strong in other areas of competence as they are in music.

Anders Ericsson and his co-researchers (Ericsson, Krampe & Heizmann, 1993, Ericsson, Tesch-Römer & Krampe, 1990) found strong correlations between the standards of performance of student violinists in their twenties and the number of hours of formal practice they engaged in. By the age of 21 the best students in the performance class of a conservatoire had accumulated around 10,000 hours practice, compared with a figure of less than half that amount of practice time for students in the same institution who were training to be violin teachers. Differences or similar magnitude were found in a study comparing expert and amateur pianists (Krampe, 1994), and measures of the accumulated amount of practice since instrumental lessons began were good predictors of within-group as well as between group differences in performance at tasks requiring performance expertise. Studies of expert musicians by Manturszewska (1990), Sloboda & Howe (1991) and Sosniak (1985) provide further evidence that regular practice is essential for acquiring and maintaining high levels of ability. As was remarked in the previous section, considerable help and encouragement is required by all young players, even those thought by their teachers and parents to be highly talented, if they are to maintain the levels of practice necessary in order to achieve advanced levels of expertise. A study by Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore (1996), which surmounted some problems inherent in the retrospective nature of the data obtained in most of the earlier research into practice by supplementing retrospective data with concurrent diary-based information, confirmed the existence of a strong positive relationship between practice and achievement. High achievers were found to practise the most and moderate achievers practised more than low achievers. The relationship between amount of practice and achievement level was strongest for the more formal and deliberate kinds of practice activities, such as those involving scales and exercises. To achieve the highest level (Grade 8) of the British Associate Board examinations in performing music required an average of around 3300 hours of practice irrespective of the ability group to which the young people in the study were assigned, a finding that is consistent with the view that amount of practice is a direct cause of achievement level rather than merely a correlate of it. As reported in Section 3.2, there was no evidence of a `fast track’ of high achievers who required less practice than other individuals in order to make an equivalent amount of progress. The most successful players certainly reached particular grade levels at a younger age than the least successful, but the findings were consistent with the explanation that they did so simply because they accumulated the requisite amount of practice more quickly.

Correlations between measures of performance and amounts of practice engaged in by individuals within the relatively narrow ranges of competence levels addressed in investigations of long-term practice range from around +.3 to above +.6 (Lehmann, 1995). Since (1) the performance measures provided by grade levels form somewhat rough indicators of attainment, and (2) crude measures of time spent practising take no account of the appropriateness or effectiveness of the particular practice activities and strategies being engaged in, or of (3) other potentially influential factors such as the student’s level of alertness and the degree to which the individual was enthusiastic and determined to do well or as against being bored and simply `going through the motions’, it is likely that these figures substantially underestimate the real magnitude of the relationship between performance and practice. Kliegl, Smith & Baltes (1989) have confirmed that the intensity and quality of practice are as important as the sheer amount of it. In future research it may prove possible to provide more accurate and detailed measures of practice activities by combining diary studies in which the amount of regular practising is accurately recorded with the time-sampling method developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and his co-researchers (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen, 1993). This enables students to provide records specifying their state of mind at the time, as well as the particular kinds of practising activities being engaged in during a period of study or practice. Of course, the finding that practising may be a major determinant of success does not rule our the possibility that inherited influences are important, since determinants of practising, such as the necessary ability to persist, may have innate components.

The evidence that has been described in the present section is consistent with the possibility that specific innate gifts are not a major determinant of high levels of performance. For various reasons, including (1) the lack of convincing positive evidence (Section 2) and (2) the substantial amount of negative evidence (Section 3), in conjunction with (3) the finding that even the crudest retrospective measures of practice are predictive of levels of performance (Section 4.1), and findings such as (4) those obtained by Hayes and others appearing to rule out the possibility that there are `talented’ individuals who reach high levels of expertise in the absence of substantial amounts of training (Section 3.2), (5) results obtained by Ericsson and others showing that `untalented’ people are capable of very high levels of performance when given sufficient opportunities for training (Section 3.3), and (6) the apparent absence of differences in the amount of practice time required by the most- and least-successful young musicians to make an equivalent amount of progress (Sections 3.2 and 4.1), it is possible that there may relatively little scope for differences in innate giftedness to make a contribution. And when some of the many measurable and observable factors additional to the above-mentioned ones that are known to contribute to inter-person variability in performance at valued skills are taken into account (Howe, 1975; 1980), as well as differences in the quality of instruction, the appropriateness of practice activities and the degree of enthusiasm with which they are engaged in, it becomes questionable whether the roles that innate gifts and talents have been assumed to perform are totally necessary. To put it simply, it is possible there may be little for innate gifts and talents to do.

4.2 Criticisms and counter-arguments

The suggestion that differences in training, practice, parental encouragement (Sloboda & Howe, 1991; 1992; Sloboda et al., 1996; Davidson, Howe, Moore & Sloboda, in press) and the numerous other known determinants performance levels, including inherited influences that operate in ways that fall outside the definition of innate gifts and talents, can, taken together, account perfectly satisfactorily for much (and conceivably all) of the influence customarily attributed to gifts and talents (Ericsson, Krampe & Heizmann, 1993; Sloboda et al, 1994a) has encountered considerable opposition. A particular criticism of the evidence pointing to the importance of deliberate practice is that it is largely correlational. A second critical view stems from the suggestion that whilst differences in amount and kind of training and practice can go a long way towards accounting for differences in technical skills, they may fail to account for those more subtle differences in skills that separate the most exceptional performers from others. A third possibility is that although practice, training and other known influences may together account for performance differences in the majority of people, there are a small number of individuals to whom that does not apply, and investigations into training and practice may have failed to detect this. The fourth criticism is that whilst comparisons between more- and less-successful groups of people may not have revealed differences in the amount of practice necessary to achieve a given amount of progress (Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore, 1996) there nevertheless exist substantial differences between people in the extent to which they progress with practice (Charness et al. 1996).

The majority of evidence linking practice and training with performance takes the form of correlational data, (often obtained retrospectively, and therefore subject to inevitable limitations) showing that the more a person trains and practices, the higher their level of performance. It has been suggested that rather than proving that a causal relationship exists between practice and skill level, these correlations might merely indicate that those individuals who are successful in a field of expertise and committed to it are likely to spend more time practising than people who are less successful. Differences in lifestyles between successful and less successful individuals might contribute to the observed correlations.

One counterargument is that whilst it is true that those findings of practice studies which take the form of correlational evidence cannot provide proof of a cause-and-effect relationship, the fact that the findings closely parallel those obtained in training studies in which amounts of practice were deliberately manipulated (Ericsson, Tesch-Römer & Krampe, 1990) is consistent with the view that differences in time spent practising do have a strong influence. Also relevant is the finding by Sloboda et al. (1996) that rate of progress by young musicians in a given year was most highly correlated with the amount of practice and teacher input in that same year, whereas the `lifestyle’ explanation would lead one to predict that the amount of progress in one year would be positively correlated with the amount of practice in the following year. In addition, it is pertinent that the reported correlations between performance levels and time spent practising are typically based on cumulative practice data, much of it obtained well prior to a time at which the performance levels of any of the young people were sufficiently outstanding to produce the differing self-perceptions that would have to exist in order for the `lifestyle’ explanation to be viable.

It remains possible that some children practice more than others because they possess some kind of innate potential that encourages them to do so. However, as Sloboda & Howe (1991; Howe & Sloboda, 1991b) discovered, even among the most successful of the young musicians they questioned, most insisted that without strong parental encouragement to practice they would never have maintained the amounts of regular practising necessary in order to make good progress. Strong and sustained parental encouragement was evident in virtually all successful young musicians (Davidson et al., in press), and the highest levels of parental support were evident in the most successful of the young people. It still is conceivable, of course, that a reason why some children received more support than others was that the parents who gave the most support did so because they detected signs of special potential in their child. But that seems unlikely in view of the finding, mentioned in Section 3, that there was a marked absence of early signs of special ability or potential in those children who subsequently became especially competent.

Parents’ beliefs about their children’s supposed talents can of course affect parental behaviours, and in consequence such beliefs may have indirectly affected children’s performance (see, for example, Brophy & Good, 1973). As was mentioned in Section 1, it is also true that self-beliefs by individuals can be good predictors of future performance (Dweck, 1986; Sloboda et al,, 1994a; Vispoel & Austin, 1993). However, that has no bearing on the question at issue, concerning the possibility that innate gifts or talents as such, as distinct from parental beliefs about their presence in a particular child, have an influence on a person’s attainments.

The second objection, that whilst differences in the extent to which people train and practice may account for differences in ‘mere’ technical expertise they cannot account for the subtle differences in expressive or creative kinds of performance that are regarded as indicating artistic excellence, represents a certain shifting of the goalposts when it is introduced as an argument for the existence of innate gifts and talents. Nevertheless, it needs to be considered. So far as musical performing expertise is concerned, the objection has been countered by Sloboda (1996). He argues that while technical skills must be acquired ab initio by extensive instrument-specific practice, some expressive accomplishments may occur rather early through an application of existing non-musical knowledge (of, for instance, emotional signals, gestures and other bodily movements) to the domain of music. There are a variety of plausible reasons why individuals might differ in musical expressivity in the absence of any differences in music-specific practice. One obvious reason is that individuals differ in levels of non-musical expressivity. A less obvious reason is that people who differ in their levels of experience of a particular musical genre may differ in their ability to remember where in a musical sequence to apply a heard expressive device. Imitation seems crucial in the early stages of expressive development, and this requires well-developed coding mechanisms for reducing the information overload present in music of any complexity. Some mechanisms arise through experience with specific musical `languages’. Expressive ability may thus appear to arise `spontaneously’ without any overt evidence of practice or teaching. This does not mean it is innate.

The third objection is that there could be a small minority of individuals who are able to make progress with considerably less training and practice than other people, but who have gone undetected in the research which has been undertaken. There do exist substantial differences between people in the extent to which they progress with practice (Charness et al. 1996). The many possible reasons include the appropriateness of the practice activities, the individual’s degree of preparedness and motivation, self-confidence and level of commitment, together with related variables such as level of concentration and willingness to persevere, and resistance to distractions. It is not clear whether differences of these kinds are sufficient to account for the differences in the rates at which individuals make progress.

It is true to say that those research studies in which amounts of long-term practice have been measured have not been designed to shed light on the behaviour of particular individuals as such, and in future research into practising increased attention to individual differences would be desirable. Nevertheless it is pertinent to note that no published studies have reported cases of individuals who have reached high levels of attainment in the absence of regular and frequent practice. It is also true, as was reported in Section 3.2, that in various fields of ability including chess-playing, mathematics and sports, no instances have been encountered of individuals reaching the highest years of achievement without devoting thousands of hours to serious training. Furthermore, as Sloboda (1996) reports, he and his colleagues found no cases of individuals who regularly practice for two hours or more per day but failed to reach high levels of achievement, another finding that seems to be hard to reconcile with the position that high attainments depend upon the presence of identifiable innate gifts or talents that are only possessed by a minority of individuals. 5.0 SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

We began this article by establishing that there exists a widespread belief that in order to reach high levels of ability a person needs to possess identifiable innate potentials that are usually labelled `gifts’ or `talents’. These are considered to be inborn, relatively specific in their effects, and possessed by only a minority of individuals, and to provide a basis for making predictions about the likelihood of individuals achieving high levels of performance. There are important social and educational consequences of influential adults holding the belief that the possession of an innate gift contributes to the likelihood of a young person becoming capable of reaching a high level of accomplishment in a specific area of expertise, and the accompanying belief that an absence of a gift precludes exceptional accomplishments.

In examining the evidence and the arguments for and against the view that outstanding accomplishments depend upon an individual possessing some biological potential that closely coincides with the meanings implied when people refer to special gifts or talents, we began in Section 2 by considering findings that have been assumed to confirm the view that innate gifts do have a role. Evidence appearing to indicate the appearance of particular attainments by young children in the absence of special encouragement was examined, as were findings suggesting that some children may be born with special capacities that facilitate the acquisition of particular abilities. However, much of this evidence is both anecdotal and retrospective, and we failed to locate any findings clearly indicating early accomplishments that could not be accounted for in terms of other known determinants of early progress. We also briefly considered findings pointing to the involvement of biological factors in human variability, but whilst it appears likely that biological sources of variability are among the factors that may affect the likelihood of an individual reaching high levels of competence we were again unable to detect any results consistent with the view that innate attributes operate in a manner that would indicate the operation of the particular qualities attributed to innate gifts or talents. The case histories describing mentally handicapped individuals with special skills include some rare instances of autistic savants with exceptional skills that appear to stem from an involuntary `specialization’ of their mental activities. With their strong proclivity to concentrate their mental energies in one particular direction, these rare and handicapped autistic individuals could be said to possess qualities correspond in some respects, but not in others, with those implied by the concept of an innate gift or talent.

Section 3 surveyed evidence that has been assumed to contradict the view that innate gifts and talents make an important contribution. Findings demonstrating an absence of the kinds of early signs of special ability that would be consistent with that view were examined, although it was noted that in common with much of the evidence that is consistent with the suggestion that innate gifts do play a major role, some of the contradictory findings suffer from the restriction of being retrospective. Generally speaking, there is a striking lack of evidence of such early indications of potential, and where unusual very early precociousness is encountered it is also found that children have been given ample opportunities and encouragement to gain skills earlier than usual, with the special opportunities generally preceding any signs of unusual ability. In addition, there is an equally striking lack of evidence pointing to large differences between individuals in ease of learning, except where this can be accounted for as a consequence of prior differences in knowledge, skills, motivation, or other factors known to affect performance. The view that certain individuals can forge ahead of other similarly prepared people with far less training or practice appears to be contradicted by findings showing that lengthy periods of intensive training are invariably essential in order to achieve the highest levels of attainment.

An additional body of findings inconsistent with the idea that innate gifts and talents have a major role has emerged from studies in which, purely as a result of training experiences, individuals who are not believed to possess a special talent have been seen to reach levels of achievement previously thought to be either impossible or only within the reach of a few `gifted’ individuals. Finally, a number of logical and conceptual arguments against the view that the notion of innate gifts and talents has genuine explanatory status were introduced.

Section 4 examined possible alternative contributing influences on those phenomena that gifts and talents are believed to explain, in particular those of deliberate practising at skills. Evidence from studies of long-term practice and training is consistent with the view that differences between people in learning-related experiences are a major cause of differences in attainments, especially when combined with other influences known to affect an individual’s progress.

Innate gifts and talents are inferred constructs rather than attributes that can be directly observed, one reason for inferring their existence being to provide explanations for otherwise inexplicable individual differences. We are not convinced that the phenomena that are believed to demonstrate the influence of innate gifts and talents actually require any explanation that cannot be provided by invoking the various other known causes of high performance, including those biological sources of individual variability that do not have the specific and predictable consequences habitually attributed to innate gifts and talents. Consequently, it is conceivable that these concepts, although widely believed in and frequently invoked as a basis for deciding how scarce educational resources and opportunities are to be allocated, are actually redundant. Another possible outcome of holding the belief that it is possible to identify innate gifts that have predictable effects, in addition to its discriminatory consequences, is that holding such a belief can act as a barrier to understanding, because the very assumption that identifiable innate gifts and talents account for exceptional abilities may deflect people from grappling with the problem of understanding the many and complex determinants of individual differences. Someone holding the view that gifts which are cast in stone are the source of observed individual differences in particular domains of skill is unlikely to devote time or energy to exploring alternative possibilities.

Of course, there do exist innate differences between people, and some of these have consequences that can affect abilities, albeit in ways that are may not be predictable. It could therefore be claimed that the `talent’ viewpoint is not totally wrong, but simply a much exaggerated and oversimplified articulation of a true state of affairs, whereby inherited differences can have influences that may contribute in one way or another to determining individuals’ levels of competence at certain skills. If the issues involved here were exclusively academic ones it might be arguable that there is some merit in that position, and it might be reasonable to regard the notions of innate gifts and talents as very crude preliminary markers of the as-yet-unmapped involvement of biological causal influences. In practice, however, there is little evidence to suggest that any of the innate differences between people that might conceivably contribute to exceptionally high levels of performance in particular domains have influences that are predictable, specific to particular domains or skill areas, and identifiable in advance of the time at which unusual degrees of competence are exhibited, as is believed to be the case with innate gifts and talents.

In any case, the implications are not solely academic ones, and so long as endorsements of the talent viewpoint encourage teachers and practitioners to believe in the predictive power of identifiable innate gifts and talents, these possibly illusory justifications for choosing between people may continue to be a source of social injustice, with unhappy consequences for all young people who are prevented or discouraged from pursuing an ambition or goal because of teachers’ and parents’ convictions that they would not benefit from the superior opportunities that are provided for those young people who are identified as being innately talented. The practice of describing some children as being innately gifted or talented inevitably results in influential adults discriminating against young people not so labelled.


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