Third Factor Reads: Extreme Intelligence by Dr. Sonja Falck

Jessie Mannisto / November 5, 2019

Dr. Sonja Falck’s new book dives into the psychosocial experience of high IQ individuals across their lifespan. Focusing on the tendency for such people to feel set apart from others, Falck observes that they tend to fall into one of four relational styles and offers thoughts on how they progress—or regress—from one style to another.

We are delighted to share this preview of a new book that we expect will be of interest to Third Factor’s readership: Extreme Intelligence: Development, Predicaments, Implications by Dr. Sonja Falck, published in October 2019 by Routledge.  The publisher kindly offered Third Factor readers a 20% discount on this and all other Routledge books for orders from their website before the end of 2019. Just enter A038 at checkout.

Dr. Falck also kindly agreed to sit down with us for an interview about her work, which we published in Issue 10.  Check it out here!

If somebody were to ask you whether very bright people typically have difficulty in social relationships, would you say yes or no? On what information or experience would your answer be based?

In her new book, Extreme Intelligence: Development, Predicaments, Implications, Dr. Sonja Falck offers a wealth of information that will help readers better answer those questions.
Falck undertook her study of giftedness/high ability after observing first-hand the stereotype that links high IQ with social difficulty. When she was a seven year old growing up in South Africa, her school recommended that she be sent to a university program for gifted children—but her mother declined. She feared that if her daughter participated in such a program, it would ruin her chances of forming “normal” interpersonal relationships. As an adult, Falck started wondering: where did this fear of her mother’s come from? What are the effects of such a fear? Is there any basis for it?

In pursuit of answers to these questions, Falck undertook a doctorate. What she found was often contradictory—which only served to fuel her curiosity.

While she found that many books on giftedness mention associated social difficulties, there was no single book dedicated to exploring the subject in depth. She therefore wrote a book that does just that.

Extreme Intelligence has the intellectual precision readers will expect from Falck as a Senior Lecturer in one of Britain’s largest schools of psychology, at the University of East London. At the same time, she has intentionally written a book that is accessible to non-academics. Her aim throughout is to engage you, the reader, in thinking about how high intelligence is manifest—or hidden—in everyday life. Every chapter begins with a reflective prompt that probes your personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences, just like the questions at the beginning of this article.

The book starts with a concise but comprehensive background that defines “extreme intelligence” and explains how it relates to concepts such as IQ, giftedness, expertise, and genius. It then focuses on the psychosocial questions: how do others react to individuals with extremely high intelligence, and how does this affect how the highly intelligent develop? Falck investigates the social predicaments faced by such individuals and the implications for them and the world around them. Supporting her arguments throughout, the author reviews the academic literature alongside representations of genius in history, fiction, and the media, and she draws on her own first-hand research interviews and her work in psychotherapy and coaching with multinational high-IQ adults.

As human beings, we are all neurobiologically oriented from infancy to establish effective relationships with those around us, because it is essential for our well-being that we find acceptance and belonging with others. Unfortunately, as Falck’s research shows, many high-IQ individuals have had formative experiences of being set apart—sometimes simply by virtue of their atypical functioning, but also because of the way that others respond to their atypicality. Whether the gifted individual is praised, rewarded, exploited, or repeatedly rejected and bullied for being different—in the end, these are all forms of being set apart, and this has consequences.

Consider this: the term “prodigy” comes from the Latin “prodigium,” which means a monster who violates the natural order of things. Falck’s research shows how extreme intelligence is strongly correlated with the highest of human achievement—but also, paradoxically, with higher relationship conflict, career difficulty, mental illness, substance use, and high-IQ crime. One chapter that may be of particular interest to readers interested in positive disintegration, entitled “Madness, Misunderstanding, and Misdiagnosis,” interrogates whether extreme intelligence is a benefit or a liability—and what we even mean by “benefit” and “liability.” Considering mechanisms of creativity and what relation they might have to psychopathology, Falck addresses key questions: does genius necessarily involve some kind of psychosocial torture? Or can it proceed happily and healthily? What might be involved in guiding high ability toward the best possible outcome? She also zeroes in on the colloquial use of two psychiatric labels that come up frequently in the context of high-IQ individuals: autism and narcissism. How are these terms used, and how do they differ from or overlap with giftedness?

With all of this in mind, Extreme Intelligence suggests a constructive path forward. Through her research, Falck has developed a four-quadrant model of relational styles that may emerge in very high-IQ individuals: Inhibited, Despairing, Provoking, and Thriving. Offering real-life examples of each of the four styles, she details the kinds of developmental experiences that contribute to each and explains what is involved in progressing—or regressing—from one style to another.

Falck has developed a four-quadrant model of relational styles that may emerge in very high-IQ individuals: Inhibited, Despairing, Provoking, and Thriving.

In writing Extreme Intelligence, Dr. Sonja Falck has provided a rigorous, up-to-date resource that is sure to spur important personal and professional conversations on the social development, predicaments, and implications of extreme intelligence.

Read our follow-up interview with Dr. Falck here!

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