In 1971, a psychologist named Julian Stanley issued the SAT to a group of 12- and 13-year-olds in an experiment that would eventually become one of the most revealing studies of human achievement.
The “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth,” or SMPY, has tracked 5,000 of the smartest children in America — the top 1%, 0.1%, and even 0.01% of all students — for 45 years. It’s evolved from the lone SAT to include other IQ tests and college entrance exams.
A new short film from Vanderbilt University, where SMPY is run by researchers Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski, reveals some of the biggest takeaways since the study began issuing exams to teens across five cohorts over the years.
The biggest finding is that supremely gifted children really do tend to achieve more than the average child. Among one of the five cohorts, totaling 1,600 students, there were 560 Ph.D.s. That’s 35% of all students in the cohort , compared to 2% of the national US population. There were also 85 books written, 681 patents filed, and 7,700 scholarly articles published, according to the film.
Camilla Benbow, dean of Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education and Human Development, said study participants excelled in non-academic fields, too, from music production to business.
“It cuts across all of these different domains,” she said in the film.
Among the other findings: gifted kids still need help from teachers to reach their full potential; they are not “self-helpers.” They also exhibit multiple kinds of intelligence, the most common being spatial reasoning, or the ability to visualise how disparate parts of a system are connected.
SYMPY also found that grade-skipping can help boost kids’ achievement. Grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn patents and doctorates and more than twice as likely to get a doctorate (in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or maths) than gifted kids who didn’t skip.
One of the most surprising findings was that there are no differences in income between genders when comparing what study participants made in similar jobs. The study reinforced, however, the idea that men and women tend to gravitate toward fields that society has largely dictated are more appropriate for each gender: women in jobs requiring social skills, and men in jobs performing rote tasks.
“You’re always surprised by many things that you learn, and that’s why we do research,” Benbow said, “because we can’t anticipate.”
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