Born to run? Probably not

19th April 1996 at 01:00
The idea that exceptional attainment is the result of some innate talent may be damaging children, Professor Michael Howe of Exeter University told last week's conference of the British Psychological Society.

Recent research challenges the claim that musical expertise depends upon an innate gift and Professor Howe's team conclude that there is just as little evidence for other such talents. Very high levels of performance, they suggest, result from the same factors as those which are responsible for more moderate success.

Innate talents cannot be directly observed, Professor Howe concludes, and they are unnecessary constructs invented to "explain" phenomena which can be satisfactorily explained in other ways, he says.

The danger of the concept is that it may be used as an excuse not to provide opportunities for children who do not exhibit such "gifts". "If some vaguely specialist person identifies a talent where none exists then that is a benign mistake," Professor Howe says. "But it is not benign if other children have doors slammed in their faces because of such unsubstantiated judgments. "

In music, he suggests, given instruction and practice, almost everyone can achieve something. To exclude children on the basis that they have no talent for something is like knocking 90 per cent of entrants out of a marathon after the first mile. It has a negative and depressing effect of young people and is potentially wasteful of their abilities.

* British schoolchildren who survived the sinking of the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers, according to researchers who have been monitoring their progress. One child, a teacher and two seamen died in the accident and many of the children jumped into the sea as the ship sank.

Two-thirds of the survivors have suffered mental illness since the disaster and more than half have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Findings presented to the British Psychological Society conference last week by the Young Adult Research Team at the Institute of Psychiatry suggest that on average the survivors, now in their twenties, fell behind academically by one year.

* Sending someone to Coventry in the playground may be much more damaging to the victim than giving them a thumping, according to researchers from Keele University. They suggest that schools may be so concerned to stamp out physical bullying that they are overlooking even more hurtful behaviour.

David Hawker and Michael Boulton have been studying junior and secondary school pupils' perception of the different forms of bullying, from physical violence to psychological exclusion. They went on to look at the long-term psychological effects of the various types of bullying pupils had experienced.

They found that most children regarded physical bullying as the worst kind and social exclusion as the most benign. Previous research has shown that the perception of teachers is very similar. In some schools social exclusion was not even regarded as bullying at all.

But when they looked at the long-term effect of bullying a very different picture emerged. The behaviour most likely to cause long-term problems such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, social dissatisfaction and low self-esteem for victims was social exclusion.

Innate gifts and talents: reality or myth?

M Howe and J Davidson, Exeter University, and J Sloboda, University of Keele.

Academic and work performance trauma in adolescence.

Julie Nurrish, Institute of Psychiatry, London.

Sticks and stones may break my bones: the effects of bullying on victims.

D S J Hawker and M J Boulton, University of Keele.

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