Why We Know So Little About High Achievers

Inquiring minds want to know—just not scientists


“Is speed-reading real?” Over the years I have been asked this question a number of times. I ought to have had a good answer, and yet, during five years of doctoral training in the psycholinguistics of reading, the topic never came up.

When I finally looked into speed-reading while researching an essay for the SCHOLAR, I discovered that it is physiologically impossible for the eyes to scan and recognize a page of text at the speeds with which some adherents claim to read. All signs pointed to the fact that speed-reading was nothing more than skimming. But how few signs there were! The most rigorous study I could find hailed from the 1980s. Why hadn’t more research been conducted? Even if the notion of moving one’s eyes at superhuman speeds had been debunked, surely there were individuals who, due to some combination of innate ability and relentless practice, could nonetheless recognize and integrate words more quickly than the rest of us. The Olympics-follower, the Guinness Book of World Records reader, the striver, the human in me wanted to know: Who are these individuals, and what are they capable of?

It’s not just speed-readers who get short shrift. Consider hyperpolyglots, those folks who aspire and claim to know dozens of languages. Who are they, and what is their strategy? Babel No More, a new book by Michael Erard, features portraits of a number of superlearners. Erard also reviews the existing scholarly literature: hyperpolyglots tend to be “meaning-oriented and pattern-seeking” introverts who achieve success through talent and an extreme motivation to learn new languages and revisit old ones. (Unused languages tend to atrophy quickly, I learned, so revisiting is crucial.)

But as illuminating as these portraits and studies are, there are still shockingly few of them—certainly nothing resembling the conversations and debates engendered by other psycholinguistic topics. Once again, the questions outsiders find most compelling aren’t the ones researchers are busy investigating. So why are so few psycholinguists willing to explore the uppermost limits of linguistic achievement?

Some of this reluctance comes from research focus and inertia. Psychologists have traditionally studied behavior in order to learn about the human mind: the human mind, not the female speaker of Mandarin’s mind, and certainly not Jerry-from-down-the-block’s-mind. What mental mechanics separate us—our individual likes, dislikes, and approaches to engaging with the world—are just noise, quirks that, if peeled away, might reveal an underlying truth. And thank goodness, because averaging away quirks is just what our go-to experimental designs and statistical tools allow us to do. Studying the quirks themselves would represent quite a methodological, even theoretical, departure.

Practical considerations also arise. Characterizing differences between individuals is nearly always more difficult than characterizing average performance: it usually requires collecting more data from participants who are harder to come by. (Note that the WEIRD undergraduate populations beloved by cognitive psychologists can be inexcusably inappropriate for individual-differences work: you’re left with an awfully teeny, homogenous subject pool once you’ve eliminated everyone who wasn’t accepted to Stanford.)

In other words, conducting research on individual differences is challenging and therefore unusual—though this may be changing. I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of published studies that address individual differences, and in one of the field’s major publications, Journal of Memory and Language, articles mentioning “individual differences” have nearly doubled in the past decade.

But even increased openness to studying individual differences wouldn’t be sufficient for investigating the most extreme (and probably most interesting) cases. Erard, who has also puzzled over the lack of scholarly interest in linguistic superstars, told me in an email that language researchers simply “have to adopt (or feel comfortable with) a biomedical model in which small samples, even just case studies, are valid sources of data.” I agree.

Yet this brings us to a final dilemma: even when researchers do decide to investigate individual differences, and even when they do focus on extreme performance, they are far more likely to concentrate on extremely low performers. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Investigating individuals with severe language deficiencies—the struggling adult reader, the four-year-old without words, the stroke patient learning to speak again—provides, in addition to knowledge, both the monetary and emotional rewards that come with actually helping people.

And so it is that the bell curve’s rightmost asymptote has been largely ignored. But learning all we can from the Michael Jordans of linguistic prowess—and indeed, acknowledging that such high achievers exist—would no doubt inform, humble, and inspire.

Look for Jessica Love’s next Psycho Babble post on January 3.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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