The ‘Over-Excitable Gifted’: Managing Talent and Five Forms of Excitability
Are you over-excitable? You may be a genius. (Don’t get overexcited: that was only “may”). But, suppose you, in fact, are gifted—some kind of genius. Then, if the ideas and research of Polish physician and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, his associates and proponents of his “theory of positive degeneration” are right, the odds are that you are also much more excitable than the average person. That’s what their investigations into the personalities of gifted children and excitable adults have suggested, with implications for the management of “gifted” workplace talent.
[Hereafter, square brackets like these will enclose my comments on the research conjectures, observations and recommendations of Dabrowski et al.]
If there indeed is a genius-excitability link (that endures into adulthood), there will also be important implications, not only for yourself and children, but also for talent recruitment, utilization and management—including regarding the best strategies to use to accurately identify, create, guide and control career-related excitability (especially among the gifted), its triggers and its manifestations.
What’s more, understanding how effective “excitability management” strategies should vary with the kinds of excitability involved is as important as understanding what forms of excitement to offer job candidates and employees through “excitement management”—irrespective of whether they are superhumanly “gifted” or not.
Just as one thing is more exciting than the next, some people are more excitable than others—either about specific situations or things (e.g., the last Super Bowl game or the Facebook IPO), categories of things (such as football games or the stock market) or simply more excitable in general (e.g., excited by chirping birds and sunsets, even after or because the football season and markets close).
Everybody knows that. But what not everybody knows is that research suggests that
- There at least five key kinds of excitability (with very different causes, manifestations, effects and implications for talent management).
- “Gifted” people are, on average, more excitable than others, i.e., are “over-excitable”.
- Excitability isn’t always emotional or emotionally manifested (much as “excitable neurons” don’t gush emotions).
- Although “excitement” generally sounds positive, “over-excitability” can have negative, as well as positive, experiential forms and consequences.
- Different kinds of (over)excitability can compete or comfortably coexist in the same person.
In his work with gifted children and adult psychiatric patients, Dabrowski identified five kinds of “excitability” that the exceptional were much more commonly susceptible to, and to a greater degree, than the average. This susceptibility he called “overexcitability” [or “over-excitability” to keep spell-checkers happy].
Defining “overexcitability” as “higher than average responsiveness to stimuli” manifested as reactions that are significantly above-average in intensity, duration, and frequency, Dabrowski and his supporters see overexcitabilities (OEs) as innate manifestations of unusual receptivity, sensitivity and awareness that leads to what he called “positive disintegration”—personal growth through hyper-sensitivity and battles with one’s self, one’s experiences and one’s various environments.
[Perhaps the mistaken stereotype of the (borderline) psychotic genius is, in part, based on the greater risk of irresolvable inner and external turmoil and conflicts that heightened awareness, receptivity and sensitivity can create. However, the multi-decade Terman studies of gifted children (with IQs 140 and above) discovered, on average, much higher than general-population average levels of emotional stability, social and professional success, and overall mental/physical health—and lower divorce rates.]
What is distinctive about the Dabrowski model is that it takes a broader view of excitability than the conventional, office water-cooler viewpoint that equates excitement with “woo-hoo!” fun. Moreover, the existence of multiple forms of (over)excitability invites the speculation that the five (and possibly more) forms may be independent of each other—that each of us, genius or not, may be over-excitable (or simply excitable) in any one, none or more than one way simultaneously, at different times or in different situations.
[One practical implication of this is that job postings and descriptions designed to appeal to applicants should incorporate appeals to specific, even multiple forms of excitability, e.g., emotional, sensory, intellectual, psychomotor or imaginational (discussed below) .]
Another distinction of his theory is that Dabrowski focused on excitability, rather than on excitement (which is what most of us seem to dwell on, because it sounds like so much fun). In other words, rather than investigating what makes something inherently exciting, Dabrowski focused on what makes someone excited—an emphasis on the attributes of the responder (including heightened receptivity, sensitivity and intensity) in inputting stimuli and in outputting excited responses.
[On the other hand, it may very well be that, under certain circumstances or in general for a given individual, being over-excitable in one way virtually eliminates being over-excitable in some of the other ways—e.g., being “emotionally over-excitable” vs. being “intellectually over-excitable” (Ah, but then there was the Archimedes “Eureka!” moment, which was probably both.)
This makes understanding the (over)excitable employee (or child)—and, because of their greater excitability, the gifted employee—a complex, yet important challenge.]
The Five Faces of Excitability
Among the five forms of OEs (and of excitability in general) identified by Dabrowski, three are stereotypical. The following is a description of them and of the appropriate management strategies pertaining to them:
1. Emotional OE: This tends to be the most obvious to others, since it is manifested in frequently very visible, intensely experienced, extreme feelings, often experienced, expressed or displayed physically, e.g., through stomachaches, whoops and blushing. According to Dabrowski (and M.M. Piechowski), emotionally overexcitable people have a remarkable capacity for deep relationships and strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things. The research of Dabrowksi and Piechowski suggests that the emotionally overexcitable tend to display compassion, empathy, and sensitivity in relationships.
[However, against this, everyday familiarity with highly emotional, volatile, yet unsympathetic and hostile personalities, suggests caution is warranted in expecting compassion and empathy from every emotionally excitable child or adult. The always explosive and merciless Hitler suffices as a cautionary illustration.]
Management Strategies: In her 2000 article, “Overexcitability and the Gifted Child” written for “Communicator”, the Journal of the California Association of Gifted Children, Sharon Lind recommends that in dealing with Emotional OE individuals [EOEs], we should “accept all feelings, regardless of intensity”. She also recommends that EOEs be taught how to anticipate and prepare for their emotional and physical responses.
[Unqualified acceptance of EOE may work with the small children who were a key, but not exclusive focus of the article, but with 200-pound adults such unqualified acceptance could be very problematic, if those feelings include murderous rage. As for teaching, in the absence of some corporate self-sensitivity training, it is likely to be, in general, difficult to accomplish in the workplace.
What may be helpful is to remain calm in the face of manifested coworker or employee EOE; to be aware of a specific individual’s EOE triggers and generally lower thresholds; to be as sympathetic as sanity, the law, safety considerations and fairness allow; and to attempt to address the triggers as equitably and rationally as one can.]
2. Psychomotor OE (PMOE): This is characterized by Dabrowski and Piechowski as heightened excitability of the neuromuscular system and includes an unusual capacity for being active and energetic, having a love of movement for its own sake, having a surplus of energy manifested in rapid speech, intense physical activity and a need for action.
Strong psychomotor OE correlates with talking or acting compulsively, “acting out”, misbehavior, nervous habits and Type A “workaholism”, competitiveness or organizational obsessiveness.
[Care must be taken not to equate psychomotor OE with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is estimated to affect 4.7% of adult Americans. ADHD is a recognized DSM-IV disorder for which treatment and management, including medication, are recommended; psychomotor OE is neither a DSM-IV listed condition nor otherwise a generally-recognized form of impairment. To equate ADHD and psychomotor OE would be like equating Type A behavior (also not a DSM-IV category) and ADHD.
In a second article, “Before Referring a Gifted Child for ADD/ADHD Evaluation”, Lind provides an excellent comprehensive checklist that compares PMOE with ADHD, for the purpose of preventing misdiagnosis—a list with possible applications to adult workplace interactions and assessment.]
Management strategies: With its main Dabrowski-influenced focus on children, Lind suggests allowing time for physical and verbal activity that is acceptable and not too distracting to others. In addition, it recommends providing time for spontaneity and open-ended, free-wheeling activities.
[Despite its emphasis on children, Lind’s OE article does suggest broader applicability of its observations and recommendations; hence, much of this advice can apply in the workplace as well and in task assignments.
For example, If one staff member seems to be more PMOE-oriented (i.e., enjoys “the action” more) than another, it may be smart to assign that employee whatever action-related tasks, e.g., visiting clients, document sorting, interviewing, leg-work, that may be required (consistent with the job’s overall duties). Likewise, setting clear goals with clear action-oriented, as opposed to, for example, analysis-oriented means to achieving them is likely to be very engaging to PMOE types or those in PMOE states.]
3. Sensual OE [SOE]: This is expressed as a heightened experience of sensual pleasure or displeasure emanating from sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. It is positively manifested in intense and early appreciation of aesthetic pleasures such as music, language, and art, tastes, smells, textures, sounds, and sights or negatively, as intense aversion to various sensory stimuli, such as odors, sounds, colors or shapes.
[Presumably, smoke, sex, Star Bucks espresso and other psychotropic substances make it as add-ons to adult positive or negative lists.]
Paradoxically, as suggested above, such hyper-sensitivity to sensory and sensual input may cause discomfort with sensory input, much as would be experienced by someone with super-dog hearing. This means that being very sensitive to or overexcited by something doesn’t mean loving it, e.g., cigarette smoke or pollen.
[Hence, it is important to note that “overexcited” does not perfectly correlate with “exciting”, which, unlike overexcitement, always has a positive connotation, reflecting enjoyable stimulation.
The remaining two forms of overexcitability tend to be less frequently noticed or experienced: intellectual overexcitability and imaginational overexcitability, in part because of the dumbing-down influence of pop-culture, the entertainment and theme-park industries, texting, Facebook and consumerism; and in part because there are fewer overt, outward observable manifestations of their quiet delights and turmoils than there are of emotional, psychomotor and sensual OEs, e.g., on a roller-coaster ride, dance floor or a football field.]
4. Intellectual OE [IOE]: Dabrowski and Piechowski characterized this as a marked need to seek understanding and truth, to gain knowledge, and to analyze and synthesize. Intensely curious, IOEs are often avid readers, critical thinkers and unusually keen observers. They are able to concentrate, engage in prolonged intellectual effort, and be tenacious in problem solving. IOEs will tend to theorize, and even think about thinking, including moral thinking. Even among children, this focus on moral thinking often translates into strong concerns about moral and ethical issues, e.g., fairness or being concerned about conventionally adult issues such as homelessness.
Those who experience IOE as a trait or a frequent state also tend to be independent thinkers, critical of and impatient with others who cannot or will not keep up with their intellectual pace.
[It is fair to speculate that IOE may also correlate with
- (over)confidence that is perceived by others as arrogance or conceit
- facility of thought that comes across as contrived and “unnatural” (because of its difficulty, alien or theoretical quality, perceived irrelevance, abstraction, formality or “uncool” unconventionality)
Management strategies: Lind suggests showing the IOEs how to find the answers to questions, on the assumption it respects and encourages a person’s passion to analyze, synthesize, and seek understanding. It also recommends encouragement of IOEs to act on their intellectualized principles and to be more tolerant of and less abrasive toward those with less intense intellectual excitability, interest or capacity.
[It seems needless to show adult IOEs how to find answers to questions, since they are very likely to be very practiced in not only asking questions, but also in looking for and coming up with answers. Indeed, showing them how to find answers may grate on another sensibility of theirs—their intellectual pride. So, in general, showing an IOE how to get an answer may be a major blunder.
However, in the workplace, this advice can positively translate into making sure that IOEs have the resources needed—including clear, coherent, consistent and comprehensive documentation—to think problems and projects through.
I once got horribly bogged down in a job designed for PMOEs—seat-of-the-pants quick design of a computer program—that, because of poorly written, yet crucial, in-house self-teaching manuals, completely frustrated my IOE need for tidy documentation, free of contradictions, vagueness, incompleteness, etc.]
As for minimizing the risk of staff excitability-style clashes, in addition to IOEs being encouraged to accommodate non-IOEs, the non-IOEs in turn should be encouraged to reframe perceived IOE arrogance and artificiality as candor, (over)confidence, intellectual agility and mild eccentricity.]
5. Imaginational OE [IMOE]: “As the Imaginational OE reflects a heightened play of the imagination with rich association of images and impressions, frequent use of image and metaphor, facility for invention and fantasy, detailed visualization, and elaborate dreams (Dabrowski Piechowski, 1977; Piechowski, 1979, 1991).” IMOEs “may have difficulty completing tasks when some incredible idea sends them off on an imaginative tangent.”(Lind, Ibid.)
Management strategies: Lind, in her exposition of Dabrowski, says that “imaginational people may confuse reality and fiction because their memories and new ideas become blended in their mind.” Accordingly, she recommends “help(ing) individuals to differentiate between their imagination and the real world by having them place a stop sign in their mental videotape, or write down or draw the factual account before they embellish it.”
Clearly writing with adults in mind, Lind adds that we should “help people use their imagination to function in the real world and promote learning and productivity.
[In the workplace, this help could take the form of
- inviting creative suggestions or interpretations in meetings (thereby providing an outlet and rewards for IMOEs)
- identifying, classifying, prioritizing and assigning job tasks, e.g., in an advertising agency’s job description or meetings, with an eye on those specifically requiring substantial creative imagination.
- retaining control over meetings and brainstorming sessions to ensure that they do not degenerate into a contest of imaginations, an unwieldy surplus of ideas or group decision-making paralysis.]
To determine which OE type you are, if any, just ask yourself whether you found any of this irresistibly exciting. If the answer is “no”, this raises the possibility that you are none of the five….
….or that you are or I am an example of an as yet unrecognized sixth type.