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Research With Gifted Adults: What International
Experts Think Needs to Happen to Move the Field
Maggie Brown, Elizabeth R. Peterson & Catherine Rawlinson
To cite this article: Maggie Brown, Elizabeth R. Peterson & Catherine Rawlinson (2020) Research
With Gifted Adults: What International Experts Think Needs to Happen to Move the Field Forward,
Roeper Review, 42:2, 95-108
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02783193.2020.1728797
Published online: 30 Apr 2020.
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THE PATH TOWARD UNDERSTANDING ADULT GIFTEDNESS
Research With Gifted Adults: What International Experts Think Needs to Happen
to Move the Field Forward
Maggie Brown , Elizabeth R. Peterson , and Catherine Rawlinson
Interest in understanding gifted adults is growing amongst health professionals, researchers,
educators, and gifted adults themselves. This study brings together international experts studying
and working with gifted adults to find out what they think about the state of research in the area,
and what is needed to move the field forward. Three rounds of a Delphi study involving 76
experts from 14 countries identified nine themes related to obstacles, priorities and actions, and
six key recommendations. General agreement was found on the need for cross-disciplinary
research and a multicultural approach. A range of views was expressed about how to move
forward with different and potentially conflicting conceptual definitions. The multidisciplinary
panel broadly supported six recommendations, with important differences of opinion in relation
to methodological preferences and conceptual definitions. Implications for further work are
adult giftedness; Delphi
study; gifted adult; gifted
and talented adults;
Despite a growing interest in understanding more about
gifted adults amongst health professionals, researchers
interested in adult development, educators and gifted
adults themselves, this remains a relatively unexamined
group in the research literature (Fiedler, 2015;Rinn&
Bishop, 2015; Silverman, 2013;Wirthwein&Rost,2011).
The field of giftedness studies lacks a framework to guide
current and future research in this age group and to
integrate emerging ideas about this complex phenom-
enon. In this exploratory study, we responded to the
efforts of those calling for a fresh look at research on
giftedness (Dai, 2018;Glăveanu & Kaufman, 2017;
Plucker & Callahan, 2014; Renzulli, 2011; Sternberg,
2018) especially gifted adults (Jung, 2012; Keating, 2009;
Matthews, 2012;Persson,2014). Using a modified Delphi
method involving a multidisciplinary panel of 76 subject
matter experts (applied and academic) from 14 countries,
we started an important and long-overdue conversation
about how we build knowledge and improve understand-
ing about gifted adults.
Historically, academic research with gifted adults has
tended to fall within fields such as gifted education and the
psychology of intelligence or individual differences. Most
current interest in gifted adults often falls outside of, or is
lost within, large and organized academic disciplines (e.g.,
within human resource management, occupational health,
higher education studies, and counseling), and so is not
well represented in the academic literature. Those currently
interested in knowing more about gifted adults tend to
focus on a substantive issue or specific contexts such as
employment, family, mental health and lifelong learning,
and as a result, the work and ideas remain sequestered
within the boundaries of specific disciplines or scopes of
practice, each with its own aims and discourse.
Furthermore, with the possible exception of a number of
longstanding longitudinal studies (Cramond, Matthews-
Morgan, Bandalos, & Zuo, 2005; Gottfried, Gottfried, &
rare collaborations are siloed geographically and culturally
(c.f. Kooijman-van Thiel, 2008) and results are not broadly
disseminated. Despite a growing number of popular books
and websites related to gifted adults, journals and other
academic literature related to giftedness largely focus on
gifted education and young people. Currently, there appear
to be few opportunities for researchers and others working
with gifted adults to share knowledge and ideas and to
Worrell, Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Dixson
(2019) review and highlight some of the historic con-
troversies and tensions in giftedness studies. Common
tensions include the relative importance of biological
endowment and environment, entrenched views and
practices such as using IQ and other single psycho-
metric measures to select research participants, and
the impasse around use of terms often found in the
gifted education field (Ambrose, Sternberg, &
Sriraman, 2012; Dai, 2018) and intelligence research
(Davidson, 2012; Simonton & Song, 2009). These
CONTACT Maggie Brown firstname.lastname@example.org School of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.
2020, VOL. 42, NO. 2, 95–108
© 2020 The Roeper Institute
longstanding debates can complicate attempts by those
interested in gifted adults to find a starting point of
common ground, highlighting the need to listen to
multiple voices and apply a variety of lenses and levels
of analysis to generate new insights and direction. This
study is part of a broader program of work in this
important space. This paper focuses on experts study-
ing and working with gifted adults to find out what
they think about the state of research in the area, and
what they believe are fruitful future directions.
In contrast to the field of gifted adults, in the past
decade scientists and practitioners have reflected on the
standing of the relatively well-developed areas of gifted
education and talent development (c.f. Ambrose, 2017;
Persson, 2017; Silova, Sobe, & Korzh, 2017; Subotnik,
Stoeger, & Olszewski-Kubilius, 2017; Tan, 2013).
Leading researchers in those fields now propose new
theories and paradigms to guide future research (Dai,
2017; Lo et al., 2018; Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, &
Worrell, 2019; Ziegler, Stoeger, & Vialle, 2012).
Recently, a group of creativity researchers, many of
whom are also well known in giftedness research, pro-
posed a “manifesto”of guiding beliefs and aims to build
common ground and advance both theory and research
in that field (Glăveanu et al., 2019). In this exploratory
Delphi study, we support the efforts of others in these
neighboring and related fields who call for a fresh
approach to inquiry into such complex phenomena.
Our primary research questions were “What is
needed to develop research that increases our under-
standing of gifted adults?”and “How should research
efforts be directed in the next 5 years?”Importantly,
our aim was not to seek consensus, but rather to dis-
cover and accurately report on the spread of relevant
views and opinions within the panel. The results of
a semantic-level thematic analysis of the data
(Boyatzis, 1998), presented in this paper, are themes
related to obstacles, priorities and actions, and six
recommendations that reflect areas of agreement and
consensus as well as differences in views amongst panel
It is important to acknowledge that there is
a longstanding debate about the use of the term gifted
in both research and practice (Ambrose et al., 2012;
Borland, 2005; Mendaglio & Tillier, 2006; Tansley,
2011). We did not impose a conceptual or operational
definition in this study. Instead, consistent with the
exploratory qualitative methodology, the word gifted
was used as a heuristic device—an investigatory and
analytic tool that offered an opportunity to communi-
cate, explore and examine ideas and aid analysis
(Hellawell, 2006), with no intention to reify a concept
(Shiner, 1975) or to assume shared understanding. This
is reflected in, for example, participant criteria, which
acknowledge that potential panel members might use
or prefer terms other than gifted. Use of the term in this
study was explicitly evocative, in the sense of inviting
reflection and considered responses. Ideas and opinions
about the use of the word gifted emerged from the data,
thereby contributing information grounded in the lived
experiences of panel members.
In this paper, the method and procedures used in the
Delphi study are described. We explain the thematic
analysis process, and report and discuss themes, sub-
themes and the results of Round 3 when we presented
key themes to the panel in the form of recommenda-
tions. Finally, implications and limitations focus on
how the results of this study can provide some direc-
tion for future research.
In this study, we used a modified Delphi method—an
iterative process consisting of a series of electronically
administered questionnaires, between-round analysis, and
dissemination of data after each round to participants
(panel members) for further comment. The method is
well regarded as a means of producing detailed critical
examination and building knowledge (Turoff & Hiltz,
1996), especially where experts are dispersed geographi-
cally, information is insufficient or incomplete, and it is
important to maintain the heterogeneity and contributions
of all members of a group (Ziglio, 1996).
We considered it important to understand within-
group differences of opinion or ambivalence as well as
areas of agreement. We, therefore, used a version of the
method called the Policy Delphi (Turoff, 1970)inwhich
the iterative analytic process is a way to understand
a spread of opinion, including key pro and con arguments
for differing positions, rather than a tool for reaching
consensus. Like the original Delphi, the Policy Delphi is
well regarded as a way to structure group communication
and sharing of views (Landeta, Barrutia, & Lertxundi,
2011), but because the focus is on having the multidisci-
plinary panel present all options for consideration, it is
particularly suited to this study (Turoff, 1970).
The Delphi process
We administered three anonymous electronic question-
naires completed iteratively by panel members over an
8-month period in 2018. Data were collected across
three questionnaire rounds, each round was analyzed,
and the results were presented back to the panel for
further reflection and comment in subsequent rounds
(see Figure 1).
96 M. BROWN ET AL.
The three rounds of questionnaires resulted in
a wealth of information to be analyzed. In this paper,
the intention is to accurately report views and opinions
of the panel about the research problem that drove the
study, how to move forward with our understanding of
gifted adults. The thematic analysis for this paper was
therefore primarily at the semantic level, staying with
the explicit meaning of the data (Boyatzis, 1998).
However, as the iterative Delphi method involves
a process that moves beyond simply summarizing and
describing the data, interpretation is required to make
sense of and organize the data for comment in subse-
quent rounds. Two specific research questions provided
an interpretive lens and focus for the analysis:
1. What is needed to develop research that increases
our understanding of gifted adults?
2. How should research efforts be directed in the
next 5 years?
A key aspect of the Delphi method is the anonymity of
responses. This is particularly important in this study. We
wanted our results to accurately reflect the views of all panel
members, without inadvertently privileging the voices of
those deemed (by other panel members) as authoritative. In
their opinions and comments freely, without feeling influ-
enced or intimidated by a “big name.”
This is an emerging field with a few experts who are well
recognized and many more who are not known outside of
local or discipline-specific circles. Research has found that
the mere presence of those perceived as powerful can evoke
deference (Petty & Cacioppo, 1996) and inhibit one’sdirect
expression of ideas (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson,
2003), even when there is no overt attempt to persuade.
In situations like this study, where there may be power
disparity, anonymity can help bring forward disparate and
dissenting views, and produce a form of task conflict that is
useful in “settings when the status quo beliefs are insuffi-
cient for what lies ahead”(Tegarden, Tegarden, Smith, &
Sheetz, 2016, p. 25).
In this study confidentiality and anonymity of
responses were maintained by using software-
generated codes (pseudonyms) to link a participant’s
responses across rounds, and for generating emails. All
care was taken to avoid using potentially identifying
information when presenting results back to the panel.
The research team remained blind to the identities
throughout the analysis, except for a research assistant
who removed personal identifiers from the survey site
The research was carried out in four interrelated steps:
●Study and survey development
●Panel recruitment and selection
●Data collection and analysis processes
While these steps are presented sequentially, the itera-
tive nature of the Delphi study means that steps also
Step one: Study and survey development
As a first step in the research project, the researcher
engaged in an extensive search for and review of litera-
ture across relevant disciplines. Initial search terms
included combinations of gifted, adults, high ability,
talent, high intelligence, innovation, adulthood, and
lifespan. Sources included electronic databases, jour-
nals, scholarly books, websites, and blog sites.
Information, gaps, and inconsistencies apparent in the
literature helped refine our search terms, and eventually
our research aim.
In this early review stage, we identified three key
organizing ideas directly related to that aim: obstacles
to moving forward, priorities and actions. These were
used as a framework for collecting and grouping data in
round one, and for reporting some of the results of the
Questionnaire 1 Questionnaire 2 Questionnaire 3
Figure 1. The three-round iterative Delphi process. Responses to each of the three questionnaires comprise the entire data set.
Arrows show the data retrieval and analysis process leading to subsequent questionnaires in rounds two and three, and to results
after round 3.
ROEPER REVIEW 97
Step two: Panel recruitment and selection
In this Policy Delphi, heterogeneity and representation
of the sample are important considerations for the
validity of the results (Hasson & Keeney, 2011; Turoff,
1970). Through our literature review and development
phase, it became clear that expertise was spread across
a broad range of academic and professional disciplines,
and not always publicly well known. Selection methods
addressed this in several ways. Participant criteria,
shown in Table 1, were developed to include breadth
of knowledge, variation, and specialization. The num-
ber of participants, large for a general Delphi, is more
typical of a Policy Delphi for the same reasons. To be
certain that panel members had relevant knowledge we
purposively searched for potential panel members who
met all criteria using a combination of expert and
snowball sampling (Paraskevas & Saunders, 2012).
The study website was posted on relevant social
media sites and directed anyone interested in partici-
pating to contact the lead researcher directly. Those
who met all criteria were sent an invitation email.
Correspondence was in English, but the website had
a translation tool. Panel members were invited to sub-
mit responses in any language, and translation was
available if required.
A total of 115 potential panel members were identified
in the development phase as meeting the criteria for parti-
cipation. Each received an invitation email with informa-
tion about the study, participant criteria, a link to the study
website, and a personal link to the online survey site to
accept the invitation. The email also requested the invitee
to share the study website URL with others who likely meet
the criteria. An additional 37 invitees were identified via
snowballing and social media.
The recruitment resulted in a total sample for round
one of 76 participants from 14 countries. Disciplines,
professions, and countries represented in round one are
shown in Table 2 (note: some panel members worked
in more than one discipline or profession). The panel
was comprised of 64 members for round two, and 58
members for round three.
Step three: Questionnaire design
An initial draft of items for questionnaire one was peer-
reviewed by three independent experts in qualitative
research design and giftedness research. We refined
the questionnaire until consensus was reached. All pro-
cesses related to online survey delivery and data collec-
tion were piloted extensively prior to round one to help
ensure anonymity and smooth processes. In subsequent
rounds, questionnaire items emerged from the data
analysis process described in Step Four. The main
researcher drafted items, which then a second
researcher, involved in the coding and thematic analy-
sis, checked independently.
Given that one of the assumptions of the Delphi
method is that the group process and group opinion
provide information that is useful beyond individual
perspectives (Turoff, 1970), we designed the three ques-
tionnaires to move focus from individual perspectives
in the first round (Me) to learning about the views of
others (Others) and eventually to group opinions (Us).
We provide more detail on the content of each ques-
Questionnaire one: Me. The first questionnaire was the
Me round, where the aim was to begin to understand
individual perspectives. In this round, we also collected
personal descriptive (demographic) data to characterize
the panel in terms of, for example, geographic spread,
disciplines represented, and areas of interest and exper-
tise. We then asked panel members to reference their
own work and experience when responding to the
Table 1. Participant criteria.
1A panel member will have an established (5+ years) interest in gifted adults. This may be a specific adult focus or a lifespan
approach with a particular interest in contexts relevant to ages 18+.
2A panel member will have an established (5+ years) interest in giftedness, and/or in a construct that they believe to be directly
related to giftedness. Lack of conceptual clarity in this area means that Panel Members may differ in the words & constructs they use.
We invite this diversity.
3A panel member will demonstrate an ability to understand and critically analyze research related to gifted adults. Some
members will be experienced researchers. Others working outside of a research environment demonstrate their ability by, for example,
using current clinical research, presenting at meetings, attending conferences, writing, or teaching. This diversity is welcome.
4A panel member will be interested in engaging in this exploratory study.
Table 2. Disciplines, professions and countries represented in
Countries Discipline or Profession
Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada,
Germany, Greece, Hungary, the
Netherlands, New Zealand,
Spain, Sweden, Switzerland,
United Kingdom, United States
Academic Research, Adult
Education, Human Resource
Management, Mental Health and
Wellness, Occupational Health and
Consultancy, Psychology, Writing
98 M. BROWN ET AL.
1. In your work related to gifted adults, what are the
priority issues? (e.g., these might be questions you
most want to answer, problems you most want to
solve, or what you feel most inspired to change).
2. The field is not without its challenges. In your
work, what are currently the biggest hurdles?
3. How do these hurdles impact your work?
4. What do you think is well known, or well established,
about adult giftedness in your area of interest?
5. In your opinion, what needs to happen to further
develop this field?
6. What questions/issues do you think this commu-
nity ideally should be seeking to address?
Questionnaire two: Others. The focus of questionnaire
two shifted to engaging with the ideas of the other panel
members. We presented information about individual
perspectives back to the group, and panel members
became aware of and commented on others’views and
opinions, including areas of agreement and differences.
This questionnaire included eight items describing
emerging themes or sub-themes. Four items included
statements that reflected ideas or patterns where panel
members appeared to disagree to some extent. Each of
these was presented as a summary statement represent-
ing one point of view, followed by several exemplar
statements “for”and “against.”Panel members indivi-
dually rated how well each summary statement
reflected their current views. Appendix A provides an
example of the summary statements. A second group of
four items reflected ideas that panel members seemed
to agree on to some extent. Panel members rated their
level of agreement with each statement. Appendix
Bprovides an example of these items.
Questionnaire three: Us. Questionnaire three included
eight items, each reflecting themes from the previous
rounds of data. The challenge for us here was to present
key group (Us) patterns for comment while continuing
to accurately represent varied and sometimes disparate
views. When thematic analysis indicated both relevance
and some degree of agreement amongst panel mem-
bers, those themes were presented in the form of six
recommendations (see Table 3). We asked panel mem-
bers to indicate their level of agreement, rate each
recommendation in terms of importance and feasibility
and comment. This served two purposes: it (a) pro-
vided additional data to refine themes and (b) increased
the reliability of our findings via member checking.
The second section was comprised of two thought
provokers—summary statements reflecting themes of
uncertainty or dilemma. For each, we invited panel mem-
bers to comment on how (or if) to move forward.
Appendix C provides an example of a thought provoker.
Step four: Data collection and analysis processes
The Delphi method requires that after the first ques-
tionnaire round, subsequent data collection rounds are
informed by an analysis of the previous round, making
the data collection and analysis process intricately
linked. In each round, we used password protected
Qualtrics online software to deliver information and
the questionnaires, and to collect data. Panel members
had 5 weeks to complete each of the questionnaires and
received a reminder email one week prior to each clos-
ing date. To promote ongoing engagement and interest,
and ultimately retention, a short email between rounds
provided a summary of descriptive data such as the
number of respondents or geographic spread.
Table 3. Recommendations put to panel members in questionnaire three.
1 We will need to frame a research program to support a plurality of views. Differing and divergent views do exist, as would be expected
in an emerging field with a slim research base. While we may flounder a bit, ultimately the application of different lenses will broaden
our knowledge & prevent premature narrowing, collapse or fragmentation of concepts.
2 Clearly articulated research questions are essential for designing studies & building knowledge in this emerging field of study. Much of
existing research with gifted adults is theory-neutral & research questions provide important direction.
3 Existing descriptive & conceptual models of adult giftedness are largely untested. The value of these models needs to be explored &
tested by the research community, in partnership with those working with gifted adults in specific contexts & with gifted adults
4 Context matters! Researchers will need to build knowledge about gifted adults in a wide variety of contexts including domains, physical
environments, roles, cultures, families & stages of life. Collaboration & sharing of information is needed. Research will likely cross
traditional disciplinary boundaries.
5 Debate about using the word “gifted”(& similar) could sidetrack research efforts. At this point, little will be gained by trying to find
“better”words. Rigor & clarity are needed around the use of terms. It may well be useful to explore context-specific attitudes about the
6 Research must be framed to support the complexity of the phenomenon, with no assumption of a universal “definition”of adult
giftedness across domains. This may limit sample size & make it difficult to control variables for quantitative research. Strong qualitative
& mixed-methods studies (including case studies & longitudinal research) can provide relevant & meaningful information without
prematurely defining conceptual boundaries.
ROEPER REVIEW 99
While the broad description of the three question-
naire rounds suggests a linear sequence of data collec-
tion, this oversimplifies a much more complex iterative
and emergent process. Each round of the Delphi study
included analyzing and revisiting earlier data to include
emerging information in the next round of the
Thematic analysis. Data were organized and categor-
ized using qualitative data analysis software Nvivo 12
(QSR International, Melbourne, Australia) and manu-
ally at times. The analytic process of each round of data
broadly followed Braun and Clarke’s(2006) six phases of
a reflexive thematic analysis. This process is summarized
in Table 4. The flexible process was well suited to the
iterative nature of this Delphi method and provided
structure for working with the large volume of data.
In keeping with the exploratory aims of the study,
we used a reflexive and inductive coding process where
descriptive codes developed and were modified as part
of the analytic process (Braun, Clarke, Hayfield, &
Terry, 2019). This orientation helped to assure the
validity of the results by reflecting and preserving the
heterogeneity in the data.
For each round of data collection and analysis, the
data were checked and rechecked multiple times, coded
and gradually understood as broader themes. The data
from previous rounds were frequently revisited and
included in the analysis to, for example, identify and
understand a pattern or thread across the data set, or
confirm a unique perspective. For each round of analy-
sis, a second researcher independently checked and
rechecked randomly selected sections of the data, and
the two researchers compared and discussed their
results. The primary researcher drafted items for ques-
tionnaires two and three to reflect emerging themes.
These were checked by the second researcher and mod-
ified as needed to best represent the data.
Codes and themes were revised throughout the study
to improve their fit with the data across panel members
and rounds (Charmaz, 2014). Emerging themes and sub-
themes were increasingly explanatory, capturing some-
thing meaningful in relation to the two research ques-
tions (Braun & Clarke, 2006), whether that be a pattern,
thread, novel idea or dissenting view (Bazeley, 2009).
Results and discussion
The main intention of this study, and hence the focus of
the findings from the thematic analysis, was to capture
the essence of what panel members had to say about how
to build knowledge about gifted adults. We wanted to
shed light on current obstacles, directions, and priorities
for the next five years from the perspective of this panel,
including areas of disagreement or uncertainty.
With those aims in mind, we present and discuss the
results of the thematic analysis (i.e., nine themes with
sub-themes shown in Table 5) under the organizing
ideas employed at the start of the study: obstacles,
priorities, and actions. Narrative extracts are included
to thicken descriptions (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Ryle,
1949) to more fully capture our interpretation, and to
show differing views. We then present and discuss
some results of the final Delphi round, during which
key themes were presented to the panel as recommen-
dations for response and comment.
Table 4. Phases of the thematic analysis.
Phase Task Process
1. Become familiar with the data Export the data from Qualtrics to nVivo.
Read and re-read for familiarization and note initial ideas.
2. Generate initial codes Re-read looking for patterns or ideas that are of interest, keeping the research
questions in mind.
Check and recheck entire data set, name ideas as codes and begin coding data.
Collate data by code.
3. Search for themes Check coded data for potentially relevant themes.
Collate data by theme.
Use organizing ideas to “chunk”themes as needed.
4. Iteratively review themes Search within and across themed data for overlap and relationships.
Re-sort and organize accordingly.
5. Define and specify themes and subthemes, and the overall story
of the data
Clarify and specify themes, naming them.
Collate data by theme and subtheme; “chunk”using the organizing ideas where
Check and re-check entire data set to refine understanding of the overall story of
6. Report results For each theme, identify compelling extracts from data to thicken the analysis.
Organize results to address the research aims and questions.
100 M. BROWN ET AL.
Three themes about obstacles were identified: (a) frag-
mentation of the field, (b) research/practice disconnect,
and (c) problems with the word gifted.
Theme one: Fragmentation of the field. This first theme
describes how the current fragmentation of research with
gifted adults limits progress. Panel members reported and
provided examples of “knowledge silos,”noting that ideas
and research with gifted adults are stored within disci-
plines, and countries with little cross-referencing and few
opportunities to collaborate. Panel members commented
that attempts to convene are usually ad hoc additions to
gifted education conferences: “We don’t currently have
organization specifically around studying gifted adults.
We do our work in isolation, and on the edges of gifted
education or the study of gifted children.”
Many panel members mentioned the lack of connec-
tion between research and practice with gifted adults.
Examples included counseling practices that are not
informed by research, and academic researchers with
limited access to participants in real-world contexts.
The absence of a disciplinary home was noted by
almost all panel members. As one panel member said:
“It’s difficult to build on previous research when the
research is so fragmented.”Panel members noted a lack
of adult-specific conferences, journals, and scholarly
initiatives, and almost all expressed a desire and will-
ingness to establish a recognized field of study.
Theme two: Conceptual differences or confusion?
The second theme captures how panel members believe
existing conceptual differences affect knowledge build-
ing. Three subthemes reflect a variety of views.
Many panel members noted examples of conflations,
in which “we’re comparing apples and oranges,”or
“operational definitions seem unrelated to the concept
being studied.”Whereas some believed that a unified
conceptual definition is needed, others expressed the
view that conceptual differences are important: “Any
consensus now will not be based on good evidence,”
and that conflation can and must be avoided through
“rigor in research design and publication
The issue of lack of transferability of research findings
was of concern to many panel members. For some, the
differing conceptual definitions limit sharing of important
knowledge across contexts and disciplines: “It is difficult
for this work to gain any traction in the world of work
where arguably it could have the widest impact.”Others
noted that sampling based on, for example, membership in
high-IQ organizations, may be conceptually inconsistent,
and restricts the generalizability of any claims.
Some panel members believed that many current mod-
els of giftedness (applied to adults) were initially developed
within “an education-centric child-focused paradigm,”and
there is little if any empirical or other evidence of a model’s
fit for adults in adult contexts. The concern is that publica-
tion of untested models, particularly in the public domain,
“reinforces the myths and plain errors about this field
already in the public opinion.”
Table 5. Themes and subthemes from the three rounds of data.
Organizing Idea Themes Subthemes
Obstacles Fragmentation of the field Knowledge silos:
Weak or scattered knowledge base
Conceptual differences or confusion Conflation
Results are not transferable.
Problems with the word “gifted”Concern over stigma around “gifted”
Priorities Gifted is a contextually embedded phenomenon Lifespan approach
Understand lived experiences Voices of gifted adults
Relevant research methods
Acknowledge (don’t reduce) complexity Within-group heterogeneity
The question of domains
Actions Link research and practice Mutually informative
Improve knowledge and build awareness Public awareness: must be reliable, accessible and relevant
Need for strategic research and public awareness initiative
Plan cross-disciplinary projects Establish networks specific to adult contexts/lifespan
Explore funding options
Collaborative cross-disciplinary research initiatives
ROEPER REVIEW 101
Theme three: Problems with the word gifted.The third
theme captures how issues related to using the term
gifted adults negatively affect research efforts. Panel
members are aware of the potential for the term to be
unpopular and possibly unacceptable in academic cir-
cles and in the public domain. Those who use the word
gifted do so to maintain historical continuity within the
academic literature, or to create a thread between child-
hood and adulthood in a lifespan approach, or, most
often, because “there is no better word right now, and
any word we use will eventually carry the same stigma.”
Many practitioners are ambivalent. They use the term if
the adults they work with relate to it, but this is often
unknown or unacceptable in their communities of
practice or training.
Panel members noted they had previously engaged in
discussions about the word gifted and have made
informed decisions about whether to use it. Some, parti-
cularly those who have chosen to use other words, believe
that using gifted creates obstacles for obtaining funds, and
for finding subjects for research. Others are aware of the
historical impasse and want to move on: “In my experi-
ence, this has been an ongoing trip down a rabbit hole that
continually leads to dead ends far afield of the essential
issues initially intended for exploration.”
In terms of priorities, three themes were identified: (a)
gifted is a contextually embedded phenomenon, (b) the
value of lived experiences, and (c) acknowledge (don’t
Theme four: Gifted is a contextually embedded phe-
nomenon. Theme four was present throughout the
data in various forms and describes how a construct
of adult giftedness cannot be separated from contextual
factors across the lifespan.
Some panel members noted that building knowledge
about gifted adults necessarily means paying attention to
adult contexts and the developmental tasks of adulthood,
suggesting a need for a lifespan approach: “to understand
how early developmental experiences impact gifted adults,
AND gifted adults have specific needs and issues and
should be researched in their own right with adult-
specific questions, methods, and models.”Panel members’
specific interests included contexts such as work and
family, and developmental issues related to, for example,
early adulthood and aging.
Most panel members wrote about the need to move
beyond a Western view of giftedness, to understand
how (or if) adult giftedness is understood in various
cultures and subcultures. Many panel members empha-
sized that a multicultural approach represents
a noteworthy change that requires reflecting on implicit
biases in, for example, research funding and publica-
tion. A multicultural lens may also shed light on
inequities: “If an adult ‘achieves’in culturally valued
ways, their giftedness is acknowledged; otherwise, it
goes unrecognized, even by themselves …. What
does this say about the construct?”
Theme five: Understand lived experiences. This theme
reflected the belief that the phenomenological experi-
ences of gifted adults matter. Many panel members
believed that rich and valuable data come from gifted
adults and that the voices of gifted adults need to be
heard and better represented in the public domain and
within the academic community. One panel member
wrote this: “We need gifted-informed research—gifted
people with both experiential and theoretical under-
standing conducting and sharing research.”
There were a variety of views on how to include and
represent the lived experience of gifted adults in
research. Panel members who prefer quantitative meth-
odology raised issues and ideas about selection criteria
and finding participants. Qualitative researchers noted
the need for change in research funding and publica-
tion: “There is a bias against qualitative research. Case
studies and other narratives, and the data they provide
are often discarded.”
Theme six: Acknowledge (don’treduce) complexity.
Theme six captured the various ways panel members
view gifted adults as a complex and irreducible phe-
nomenon. Most panel members viewed gifted adults as
a heterogeneous group and were interested in under-
standing differences as well as commonalities. Research
interests included twice-exceptionality, cultural values,
age and developmental stage experiences, gender and
equity issues, and domain-specific talent.
While a few panel members ascribed to a single-
variable view of giftedness, the predominant view was
holistic, considering the entire system, including envir-
onment, development, domain, intra-individual charac-
teristics and phenomenological experience. Comments
emphasized the need to understand real-world situations:
What happens at work or in a group may be comple-
tely different than what happens outside of that envir-
onment. Whether we look at performance or behavior,
the gifted adult does not exist in a vacuum. What else is
Another thread was to expand inquiry beyond cogni-
tive skills: “Take the whole gifted self into account, not
just cognitive capacity and needs, but also social, emo-
tional, physical and spiritual.”
102 M. BROWN ET AL.
The issue of domain-specificity and its importance
in understanding gifted adults was acknowledged by
most panel members and was particularly related to
a developmental, lifespan approach. As one panel
member wrote, “Abilities and what we call giftedness
may change over time. We have to look at the inter-
section of domain characteristics and developmental
tasks and challenges for specific age periods.”
Three themes related to actions emerged: (a) linking
research and practice, (b) increasing awareness, and (c)
planning collaborative cross-disciplinary projects.
Theme seven: Link research and practice. Panel mem-
bers wrote about a historic lack of opportunity for
research and practice to be mutually informative. Many
expressed the view that collaborations are essential now
and in the future. As one person wrote, “It’s important to
bridge academic research and experience-driven theories
and observations.”Another suggested, “a combination of
ecological and practical/applied approaches for research-
informed support and advocacy.”
The value the panel placed on linking research and
practice across contexts was reflected in a comment
from one member: “A strategic cross-institutional and
cross-sector (educators, psychologists, counselors,
therapists, etc.) plan for research in this area is badly
needed. A team that could tap into research funding
from different sectors.”
Theme eight: Improve knowledge and increase aware-
ness. Theme eight reflects panel members’concern
about the lack of awareness and misinformation about
gifted adults in the public domain and in practice and
academic communities. Some panel members believed
that reliable information is not yet available, but that it
needs to be accessible and relevant to specific audi-
ences. As one panel member wrote, “People are treated
and medicated for diseases they do not have. A priority
is to increase awareness of this population among
mental health providers.”Others believed that we do
not yet have reliable information to share and that the
urgent need is for strong evidence including myth
busting. Despite these differences, there was strong
interest in moving forward, as expressed by one parti-
cipant: “We must convene (physically or virtually) and
agree on some foci of research, and on a direction for
publications for laypersons.”
Theme nine: Plan cross-disciplinary projects. The final
theme describes a view that was prevalent throughout
the study: panel members want to establish cross-
disciplinary networks, projects, and communities of
interest aimed at building knowledge about gifted
adults. As one panel member wrote, “Conferences, col-
laboration, a research agenda, funding …separate from
gifted education—all are needed!”Other ideas included
a special journal issue, symposia, and special interest
groups (SIGs) within existing academic and advocacy
groups. Many panel members saw potential benefit
from joint funding applications for multidisciplinary
and multi–institutional projects. The panel generally
expressed some urgency, as noted by one participant:
“The needs of gifted adults are largely unknown (to the
adults themselves, as well as to those in their environ-
ment). It’s time to establish robust scholarship and
networks of communication and support specifically
for the adult gifted field.”
Results of round three recommendations
The themes emerging from the first two rounds of the
Delphi led the authors to identify six provisional
recommendations related to the research questions
(see Table 3). These were presented to the participants
in round three for rating and comment.
The first recommendation centered on the need to
develop a research program that captures the plurality in
the field by using a variety of lenses to avoid fragmentation
of concepts. Almost all panel members either agreed or
strongly agreed that this recommendation was either essen-
tial or important. One panel member, however, expressed
concern that the recommendation would be counterpro-
ductive, noting that “When we try to make a field of study
all inclusive, we dilute the important issues that should be
apparent from the start.”In terms of feasibility, as one
participant said: “I would think it is not only feasible but
impossible to avoid a plurality of views, theoretical stances,
and methodological approaches in such research!”
The second recommendation reflected various themes
and subthemes related to a perceived lack of methodo-
logical rigor and focused on the need for studies to be
directed by clear research questions. Most panel mem-
bers agreed with this recommendation to some extent,
and half of the panel agreed strongly. Of those who
disagreed, most preferred other methodologies. For
example, as one participant said,
I do not wish to rule out research methods that do not
start with ‘clearly articulated’research questions per se,
but allow these to emerge, dictated by the research
‘data’itself. To do otherwise is to limit the field to
a quasi-scientific paradigm, and risk ignoring impor-
tant information and insights.
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The third recommendation centered on existing
models of giftedness and the importance of testing the
validity and usefulness of those models for gifted adults.
There were some polarized views around the recom-
mendation. All but three panel members agreed to
some extent and viewed the recommendation as either
essential or important. One said, “It is essential because
these models tend to pop up in literature reviews, etc.,
but lack the authority empirical testing would deliver.”
In contrast, another panel member said: “Testing exist-
ing models would be an expensive exercise in time
wasting.”One panel members’comment captures
important differences in aims:
The researcher in me says that this is important and
should be clarified, strengthened, and generally firmed
up. The practitioner in me just wants to work on fixing
stuff, not wait for the models to be thoroughly vetted
first. The researcher in me answers that the solutions
will be better and more likely to be effective if they
come from well-tested models. The practitioner argues
that individuals don’t necessarily fit in models anyway.
And so on. It’s a crowded conversation in my head.
The fourth recommendation focused on the need to
understand adult giftedness as a contextually embedded
phenomenon, requiring collaboration across disci-
plines. Panel members are aware of the unique chal-
lenges of cross-disciplinary research. One member said:
“Funding to do this well is essential and would be
dependent on the construction of a credible, authorita-
tive team of researchers.”Despite the challenges, there
is almost unanimous agreement amongst panel mem-
bers that complexity and contextuality must not be
reduced. One member summed this up:
This versatile subject matter needs to be addressed from
a human perspective to take into account where it occurs,
when, with whom, by whom, etc., and the impact(s) it
has in the “real life”of gifted adults around the world.
The fifth recommendation addressed the conten-
tious issue of the word gifted, presenting a view that
this is not the time to try to solve that problem. While
nearly three-quarters of panel members felt it is either
essential or important to move forward without debate
about the term, others viewed the recommendation as
counterproductive, with one saying, “The negative con-
notations of the word gifted are rife.”Some panel
members already used alternative terms. One said,
I seldom use the word gifted in my work, and always
use the word talent as I discuss talent in domains. The
split in the field would disappear if we were specific in
what kind of talent we are talking about.
Another member acknowledged stigma but advocated
for continued use of the word gifted, suggesting some
degree of inevitability: “There will always be emotional
responses to the word, and the populace it represents …
that’s entirely understandable. Let’s embrace the word,
its meaning and the realities of outlier experiences and
move on. It’s time.”
The sixth recommendation concentrated on the his-
torically divisive issue of definition. Here the recom-
mendation was that seeking a universal definition is
currently neither possible nor productive. Whereas
most panel members agreed with recommendation six
and viewed the recommendation as either essential or
important, others expressed strong opposing views, one
Creating more noise but all following our own ‘defini-
tions’of giftedness has led the field here. If we want to
be able to produce good defensible research, gain
esteem for our field, and increase our grant ability,
we need to agree on a common, measurable definition.
Among those who agreed with recommendation six,
some believed that consensus on a definition is even-
tually necessary. As one panel member said, “For this
period yes …aim for more clarity in the long term.”In
contrast, others opposed a search for a universal defini-
tion now and in the future, one saying it “stifles the
voices of a range of scholars and commentators who
don’t believe that a simple scientific paradigm is suffi-
cient to explain giftedness. This would drive the field
further to the margins of educational and psychological
A third group agreed with the recommendation, advo-
cating for methodological rigor in the face of differing
definitions. As one group member said, “this can only
succeed if there is sufficient and strong theoretical foun-
dation, adequate description of what a researcher means
by giftedness, use, and description of a correct analysis
method and a correct selection of the research group.”
The nine themes and related subthemes identified in
this study provide insight into relevant experts’opi-
nions about the current state of research related to
gifted adults. Our aim was to explore the state of
research in the area and to discover what experts
think needs to happen to move the field forward. This
was the first time these key stakeholders had come
together to express and share their views. The recom-
mendations and ideas presented by experts in this study
provide a snapshot of what is current and some direc-
tion for immediate action and future research with
gifted adults. Hence this study is an important step in
advancing the field.
104 M. BROWN ET AL.
Although we found that this area of study lacks
cohesion and remains somewhat marginalized for var-
ious important reasons, we also found that panel mem-
bers believed that these and other obstacles are not
insurmountable. The three key obstacles found were
fragmentation of the field, conceptual differences, and
problems with the word gifted. These obstacles are not
new and our results revealed that this group of experts
was motivated to move toward solutions. Notably, we
found that panel members believed that these and
many other identified problems could and should be
addressed immediately through transparent communi-
cation and debate, and collaborative research.
Specifically, panel members called for immediate action
to develop an online community of interest, special
issues within relevant journals, and symposia.
In terms of priorities for research, we found that
group opinion supported, amongst other things, a shift
toward a systemic or ecological lifespan approach. What
emerged from this study is a strong, albeit not unan-
imous, call for recognition of complexity. Related to that,
the panel recommended using models and research
methods that take into account the experiences of gifted
adults in adult contexts (e.g., employment, family, com-
munity, lifelong learning, retirement, and aging).
Our analysis suggested six recommendations on how to
move forward with research. Panel members’opinions
about those recommendations revealed differing priorities
as well as areas of agreement and controversy. There was
broad agreement on some specific actions related to cross-
disciplinary collaboration and increasing methodological
rigor, and on key conceptual considerations such as the
importance of a multicultural adult-focused lens. There
was less agreement about the current feasibility and value
of testing models, and panel members presented pros and
cons. Most apparent was the diversity in how panel mem-
bers construed adult giftedness. Given the complexity of
the subject matter and paucity of research, it seems timely
to value differing conceptualizations, each highlighting
specific aspects. While it remains to be seen if the diversity
can be embraced moving forward in research, our results
show that this panel had the will and intent to be inclusive.
A key point of difference relates to the use of the term
gifted adults. As anticipated, panel members employed
a variety of terms, which raises important philosophical
and practical questions. How do we understand the
squeamishness around the use of the term gifted adult?
What are the constraints and possible opportunities
afforded by that discomfort? Does using the term gifted
adult necessarily perpetuate biases? Is the term useful
and appropriate in some contexts, but not in others?
Answers will require the sort of cross-disciplinary reflec-
tion, debate, and transparency begun by this study.
Furthermore, this panel agreed that the voices of gifted
adults must be included in research, and we suggest that
any future debate about terms requires such inclusion.
The high level of participant retention and engage-
ment, together with comments from panel members,
indicate that this study was an important catalyst for
future action in the field. Specifically, panel members
wanted to convene, share information, collaborate across
disciplines and work toward increasing awareness about
research with gifted adults. The iterative Delphi process
provided panel members with new insights into the views
of others, and the opportunity to reflect on, articulate and
even modify their own views and opinions. The thematic
analysis allowed us to understand and report a wide array
of views to the panel and in this paper.
Our findings are, however, limited to this sample.
While our sample consisted of experts from 14 coun-
tries and included researchers and practitioners, ideally
the study could be widened to include other voices, for
example, those of stakeholders from various cultural
and language backgrounds, and the results compared.
Such research is important to fully reflect the current
state of research in the field and to catalyze interest,
conversation, and action more widely.
Similarly, future research in the area could explore
whether differing constructs of gifted adults are used in
various disciplines, countries, and areas of research
interest. Research could shed light on any cultural,
geographic or discipline-specific differences in pre-
ferred terms, models, and theories.
This study focused on the perspectives of experts in
the gifted adult field. The researchers involved in this
study are aware of the importance of including the
voices of those most impacted by the research and
have explored the perspectives of gifted adults in
a series of focus groups (Brown, Peterson, &
Rawlinson, 2019). It will be interesting to examine the
extent to which the research foci recommended by the
experts in the current study are responsive to issues
that are meaningful to gifted adults themselves.
Finally, in this study, we found that a key obstacle to
building knowledge in this field is the lack of opportunity
to publish and disseminate relevant information. It
remains to be seen how (or if) results of innovative
research with gifted adults will be shared in the future.
Findings presented in this paper reflect a strong interna-
tional interest in this emerging field, with the potential to
create more opportunities to disseminate information
and to improve knowledge about gifted adults.
ROEPER REVIEW 105
1. A deeper and more fine-grained analysis of the data
using a different and wider lens was also conducted but
is beyond the scope of the current paper and is
described elsewhere (Brown, in preparation).
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Maggie Brown http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5345-5680
Elizabeth R. Peterson http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2702-
Catherine Rawlinson http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2045-
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Appendix A. Questionnaire 2 example of item
from Section One where panel members tended
to disagree with each other
Statement: Gifted adults are best understood using
a developmental framework that includes childhood and
Gifted adults are best understood using a developmental
framework that includes childhood and adolescence:
Appendix B. Questionnaire 2 example of item
from Section Two where panel members mostly
seemed to agree with each other
Most panel members want to create opportunities to col-
laborate and share knowledge with others:
Research on giftedness in adults does not sit neatly
within traditional disciplinary boundaries. This means
that the usual methods of sharing knowledge—confer-
ences, journals, collaborative research projects, databases,
shared discourse—are not (yet) available. There is little
researchers, countries, cultures, languages and disciplines
(academic and professional). Some progress has been
made in coming together but, apart from activity in the
Netherlands, this tends tobeundertheumbrellaof
“gifted education.”Many panel members recommend
a conference or symposium, and one member offered to
host a “Special Issue”in an existing journal.
How well does this match your current view?
Can you suggest ways we can move forward on this?
Appendix C. Questionnaire 3 example of
a thought provoker where panel members
were asked to comment on controversial and/
or challenging issues raised in previous
Many Panel Members see an immediate and urgent need
for increased public awareness about giftedness in adults,
and for evidence of best-practice in applied settings.
However, currently, it seems there is insufficient research
evidence on which to base either public education or
(How) can this dilemma provide direction for research in
the next 5 years?
Notes on contributors
Maggie Brown is a PhD candidate in
the School of Psychology at the
University of Auckland in New
Zealand and works as a counselor and
psychotherapist in private practice. She
has a specific interest in working with
gifted and creative adults. Her research
is focused on understanding how to
improve knowledge about this under-researched group.
Elizabeth R. Peterson is an Associate
Professor in the School of Psychology
at the University of Auckland in New
Zealand. Most of her research is
focused on trying to understand the
factors, processes, and pathways that
optimize human learning and develop-
ment and that promote happy, healthy,
well rounded, and resilient young peo-
ple. She is particularly interested in how people’s self-beliefs
and expectations affect their wellbeing, learning, and educa-
tional outcomes. Elizabeth is a lead researcher on Growing
Up in New Zealand, a multidisciplinary longitudinal study
following approximately 7,000 New Zealand children. Email:
Catherine Rawlinson is a senior lec-
turer in Education in the School of
Learning, Development and
Professional Practice at the Faculty of
Education and Social Work, the
University of Auckland. Her research
interests are in gifted education, aca-
demic self-concept, and peer mentoring.
She is a registered primary school teacher. Email: c.rawlinso-
Giftedness can be identified early &
continues to develop throughout
the lifespan. Aspects of
development of gifted children,
both idiosyncratic and more
universal, must inform our study
Adults who are gifted have specific
needs and issues related to adult
contexts. Research should focus
specifically on gifted adults in
It is important to understand how
early developmental experiences
impact on gifted adults,
particularly in clinical work.
Research with children and
adolescents is being done in
other fields including gifted
education. Research with adults
will have different questions,
methods and models.
Clearly Mostly Moderately Slightly Not at all
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108 M. BROWN ET AL.