In 1922 Dr. Lewis M. Terman, the psychologist who developed the widely used Stanford-Binet IQ test, decided to run a long-term study of gifted children. He asked teachers in California cities to nominate their brightest youngsters, then tested them all and picked the top 1,500. The minimum IQ of the group was 135, which put them in the top 1% of the U.S. population. Terman personally led the continuing study of their lives for more than three decades until his death in 1956.
A half-century later, the gifted children have turned into gifted citizens in their mid-60s, and the Terman study is still going on. Recently Dr. Pauline S. Sears, professor emeritus of education and psychology at Stanford, published the latest report on what has happened to the original 671 Terman girls. A surprising 68% answered the survey. While the subjects were guaranteed anonymity from the start, the group is known to include a college president, doctors, writers, business managers and many teachers and professors, as well as secretaries and bookkeepers. In the office of her Menlo Park home, Dr. Sears talked to Nancy Faber of PEOPLE about her findings:
What is important about the Terman study today?
It gives a long, developmental history of the kinds of lives that bring satisfaction. Of course, from my point of view, satisfying life-styles are as important to those with IQs of 60 as they are to those with IQs of 135.
How did the Terman children react to being singled out as exceptional?
When they were asked in 1936, 14 years after the study began, they were divided. Nineteen percent reported it had a favorable effect on their lives, 11% said unfavorable and 6% said both. I think the most interesting thing is that the majority (64%) reported it had no effect on their lives at all.
Why have the identities of the Terman children been kept secret?
From the very beginning we were very fussy about anonymity. In the 1920s the parents of the Terman subjects wanted their privacy, and we respected that. I am absolutely certain that the responses would not have been so high had we failed to jealously guard their identities throughout the years. We will continue to do so until the year 2000.
Why did you choose to analyze the Terman women instead of Terman men?
When these women answered the latest questionnaire, in 1972, they were approaching retirement age. I identified with them since I was about to retire from Stanford University. They were asked to look back and see what they had done with their lives, and that interested me. Because of my background, for example, I hoped we would find that professional careers were associated with satisfaction—and we did.
Did you combine marriage with your career?
Yes. I got my master’s degree from Columbia Teachers College in 1930 and my Ph.D. from Yale in 1939. In between I had two children. My husband is Dr. Robert Sears, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford and a trustee of the Terman study. He will probably analyze the data on the Terman men.
Will you give us a brief rundown of the Terman women?
Compared to other studies of U.S. women, a higher percentage of Terman women were employed rather than homemakers. In fact, almost half are still employed while 17% retired only recently. More of the married women were childless, more had relatively high incomes (68% reported family incomes of $15,000 or better) and, very strongly, more had better education and were professionals.
Were any minorities included?
In the study as a whole, almost none. There were a couple of blacks, four or five Chicanos and some Asians. Of course, you have to remember there was almost no black population in California until World War II. Even when the Chicanos started to arrive in the 1920s, the children had already been selected. That’s how far back the study goes.
What is the marital status of those studied?
Sixty-five percent are married—some to their second, third or even fourth husbands—15% are widowed, 11% are divorced or separated and 9% are single. The majority of women live with their husbands while 19% are considered heads of household. And, although these women went to college during the Great Depression, 69% managed to graduate. And 75% had children. Homemakers accounted for 57% while 43% were income workers.
What kind of people did the Terman men and women marry?
Both the husbands of Terman women and the wives of Terman men had high IQs. Their spouses were well above average intelligence but slightly lower than those in the study.
And what about their children?
They, too, were above average, but slightly lower than their Terman parent. But this finding is normal in all studies. It’s called “regression to the mean.” Still, the average IQ of the Terman children’s children is 135, which was the minimum IQ for those in the study.
What did you find about the women’s attitudes towards life?
Among all the women, 69% expressed high satisfaction with their work patterns, whether they were homemakers or employed. Married women without children ranked themselves the highest in terms of general satisfaction (65%). Married with children came next (54%).
Did their interpersonal relationships with family and friends turn out to be particularly strong?
It varies. A lot depends on early childhood relations. Those who were satisfied rated their own parents’ marriages as happier than average. They were close to their parents, were encouraged to be independent and had a high degree of self-confidence as children. I think this shows what a warm emotional climate in a home can mean to children when they grow up. Coming from such a background, they were more likely to find their own children satisfying.
Were there any surprises?
Yes. Women classified as heads of household—that is, women who are single, widowed or divorced—turned out to be the most satisfied with their work. For example, 93% of those without children but with a job said they were exactly where they wanted to be in life. Other studies, incidentally, show women on their own not as satisfied as women living with husbands. And the fact that childless women were highly satisfied with their lives surprised me. I didn’t expect that.
What did the Terman women enjoy most about their work?
Friends came first, and social contact. Stimulation and creativity also ranked high. Financial gain was rated quite low, however.
How do you think this will compare with the study of Terman men?
I think a good many of these women were not as ambitious as the men. The women settled for work they enjoyed. They didn’t get as much money as the men, but then it wasn’t as important to them. The women, particularly those who were teachers, would write, “I love it. I love helping people.” Men are more success-oriented.
How do the Terman women compare with young women of today?
These women were ahead of their time. They had fewer children. With their intelligence they had the capacity to solve any problems that presented themselves. And it should be noted that, while many of those listed as homemakers now say they wished they had worked, none of the workers said the same about being homemakers.
Why did Dr. Terman want to study gifted children?
He believed that high-IQ children should become the leaders in society. He wanted to study how they did or did not accomplish this. Some have not become leaders, you know. He also wanted to know to what use they put their talents.
If you were to start the Terman study today, what would you do differently?
Most important, I wish we could be studying women who are in their 30s today and whom we have been watching since they were children. That would really show changes in our society.
Why is the Terman study a classic?
It is unique in the number of responses it gets even today. Throughout the years we have questioned the Terman group nine times. Dr. Terman took a deep personal interest in them and called them “my children.” They would come to see him when they got married or had babies of their own. Dr. Terman was a tough-minded scientist and he wasn’t always the warmest person, but he was with his “children.”
What is the main lesson to be drawn from the study?
Our sample of gifted women identified circumstances which would allow for the possibility of a happy life on their own, without a husband. They were able to cope with their lives thereafter. The intelligence which enables the gifted woman to adapt is related to her ability to find personal happiness.