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Do the Gifted Turn to Crime?
Q: I've read somewhere in the past that ridiculously high percentages of inmates in our prison system have high IQ's. Do you have any information with regard to these statistics?
A: According to Marylou Kelly Streznewski in her book Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, gifted people may make up as much as 20 percent of the prison population. Given that estimates of giftedness in the population range from 3 to 5 percent, her data suggests that the gifted are overrepresented in the prison population. The majority of inmates are young males, often from lower socioeconomic groups. (It is also true that their crime victims share those demographics.)
The more important questions relate to why the gifted become involved in crime. Although a certain level of intelligence is required for some crimes (e.g., computer hackers), it seems counterintuitive that bright people with potential would choose a life of crime. Some researchers have theorized that gifted individuals who turn to crime lack a well-developed sense of morality. They lack control over their own behavior or are not guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. The gifted criminal may consider crime a challenge: Can I do this and not get caught? Other researchers point to biological factors or inconsistent parenting as the origins of criminal behavior. A person who does not fit in or who feels isolated may commit crimes as a way to be accepted (e.g., in a gang).
As the tragic events of 9/11 have shown us, bright individuals can engage in evil acts.
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Rita Culross is Associate Dean, College of Education, and Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction at Louisiana State University. Culross has served as the consulting school psychologist for a public school elementary gifted program, and has written a book and several journal articles on gifted education.