The Perceptive and Silenced Minorities


It is not unreasonable to expect a small percentage of any population to be more perceptive than the rest. In what other way might we account for the germination of so many kinds of interests, pursuits, and mental activities? Someone, somewhere, at sometime had to be more perceptive than others in some matter or leaders in any field could not be identified…nor indeed would the field itself exist, for the existence of different fields presupposes divergent points of view.

Consider the idea that 4% of the population might be the number appropriately destined to lead a society out of sterile contentment toward the edge of awareness. Such a view supports the idea that there are decisions which can be better made by the very few than by the many. An oligarchic think tank may be appropriate even within a largely "democratic" system. If it were not so, what role should democracy play in, for example, aesthetics or in the establishment of truth? Should we accept that beauty and truth are a matter of majority opinion? If consensus could establish truth and point out the beautiful there would be no reason for the loftier concerns of rarer persons.


The 4% to which I have special reference earned a gradepoint average (GPA) somewhat below a 2.2 (2.2 is approximately equal to a grade of C) at the University of Northern Iowa. Because of this and an administrative decision not to allow students who earned a GPA less than 2.2 to register for practice teaching—a requirement for graduation within the program for teacher preparation—these students will not be expected to enter the teaching field. I imagine that other institutions have similar requirements. This particular 4% indicated that their perceptions in a field for which they had no special training were the equivalent to those of trained specialists. Thus it may be that there are throughout the country thousands of perceptive college students enrolled in institutions of teacher preparation who will never see a public classroom and by not being there will be impoverishing the educational system and depriving the nation of enlightened leadership.

It is not my intention to suggest that the GPA has no bearing on an individual's effectiveness as a teacher. It is my intention to ask why it remains the deciding one. It may be important to point out the possibility that a difference in values (a difference in kind as well as a difference in degree of conformity to them) is what determines the amount of energy an individual may be willing to use in meeting preset, system-determined goals.

The research identified above indicated that some who will not be allowed to teach our young are among the most perceptive in matters of aesthetic judgment. If it seems reasonable that we provide sensitive and perceptive persons the opportunity to fill positions where their special abilities could be most effectively utilized, why is it that a significant percentage of such people are excluded? Not to utilize them and to lose the profit from their insights is wasteful, negligent, and criminal.


It might be helpful to describe the setting from which the awareness of the perceptive 4% was made. There were 120 "art products" (actually designs or pictures) made in response to a creativity task called THE CREATIVITY DESIGN TEST (CDT) and this test was administered to non-art college freshmen and sophomores. The designs were judged by 69 inexperienced non-art majors (also freshmen and sophomores in college) and seven art faculty from this University. The top 10% in agreement with their peers on the matter of aesthetic judgments of these works as determined by a value scale of 1-5 on a continuum of like-dislike were compared with the art faculty on this variable. Two of the seven in best agreement with their peers agreed statistically significantly with the art faculty at the .05 level of significance. The five remaining did not significantly agree with the faculty. Three of the seven in lowest peer agreement were in statistically significant agreement with the art faculty at the .005 level of significance. The remaining four did not agree significantly with the faculty.

The indications were that, in general, those in high agreement with their peers would tend to be in disagreement with the experts and that, in general, those in low agreement with their peers would tend to be in high agreement with the experts. It was decided to determine whether there were other differences among this peer group. There were. That difference lay in the area of academic achievement as reflected in their high school and college grade point averages. In both high school and college the GPA of the high peer agree-ers was approximately one GPA higher than for the low peer agree-ers. For example, the academic average for a high agree-er might be a "B" while that of the low peer agree-er might be a "C."


Although the statistical analyses do not deal with this problem directly, I suspect that what may be operating between the consistently lower academic ratings achieved by the low peer agree-ers as compared to what is achieved by the high peer agree-ers, and the factor of agreement between the low peer agree-ers and the experts, is a matter of a two-edged perception. On the one hand the perceptive individual is capable of responding intuitively perhaps but still effectively and with insight on a level of excellence comparable to the specialist. On the other hand he is in most academic situations required to respond on a level of excellence set by nonspecialists (teachers) operating on assumptions they may not care to test while ignoring the pertinence and sophistication of unscheduled data which may be playing a vital role in the decision making process. Is there any wonder that the perceptive person would lose interest in what must appear to him to be inept and misguided procrustean exercises which reduce intelligent behavior and encourage mindless intellection and the conformity of thought processes?

The situation presented to such low peer agree-ers might be described as a dilemma. The low peer agree-er perhaps achieves a level of perception comparable to that of the experts because his expressed responses are genuinely his own, rather than the offspring of consensus. His GPA remains lower than that of his consensus-bound peers because he, perceiving more accurately, more clearly, and with greater interest than they, finds that there are fewer persons with whom he might establish consensual validity, i.e., communicate. This understandably might restrict one's risking revealing insights to peers who are unaware of even the possibility of their existence. Sensitive to the pressures of conformity, he might not assert his perceptual superiority. By not asserting this superiority he could retain some of the security offered by apparent agreement with the majority. (It could be hypothesized that a significant percentage of persons who are perceptive in specialized ways are correspondingly unaware of what is required to protect them from the actions of the mindless majority. One might wish that the majority was not so vainly sensitive about differences but rather have the courage to utilize such differences as needed specialties in a complex society.)

The balance sought between openness of expression about sensual perception on the one hand and blind sensual exclusivity and formal hierarchic expression on the other could well describe a situation in which anxiety about the validity of one's perceptions comes into conflict with the need for companionship and the reassurance obtained by agreement. If most of the people around cannot or will not see the world as a more perceptive person sees it, the more perceptive person is required to adjust to the less adequate perceptions of the majority or suffer the risks of social and psychological alienation. In such a world one becomes aware that functional reality is a matter of opinion, and that in general the most persuasive opinion is that one held by the majority at the level where the greatest number of sense data are held in common by the greatest number of persons.


The low peer agree-ers may perceive more expertly than do their chronological peers or even their program-bound teachers, but in an environment dominated by the inexpert their voice will have little effect and even matters of art will be determined by consensus. In such a system one might expect the perpetuation of practices on the part of teachers who have consistently been rewarded for behavior which encourages mediocre, unsure, and inept but safe, conforming and expected responses.

We might also consider the probability that the GPA can readily be determined through the expertise of the student in correctly assessing and choosing to adapt to the level of group awareness. Such an act would be merely a function of the normal attraction toward the mean level of awareness although to some interpreters (Child, 1962, 1964, see References) it would imply excellence within the discipline. The continuance of practices which reward agreement and ignore, or punish, insight might be the result of determining suitability to teach by means of a GPA.

There are limitations in the present data. To many the major insufficiency lies in the amount of statistical support which might otherwise allow statements of a really conclusive nature. At this time I merely wish to take advantage of the temptation to probe the implications of the data presently available. Subsequent plans at the University of Northern Iowa have included a program of testing across several disciplines to assist in the determination of whether or not some kind of low-achieving but highly perceptive percentage of the student body could be isolated. For a variety of reasons, not all of them admirable, these plans were terminated. I have frequently wondered whether the decision to terminate was sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis.


In the course of formal analysis as well as in moments of informal preoccupation with the data, an auxiliary idea developed which suggested that both peer and authority pressures may operate to define the limits of group awareness, acceptances and beliefs. In brief, the group exerts pressure on the individual to conform not only behaviorally in terms of how he acts but also sensually, in terms of how he admits sensual data into his personal analytical system. In short, there may be ways in which the reality to which the group will admit is defined by the group. Anyone more perceptive than the limits allowed by the group may find that truth is also a matter of opinion and that the punishment for being aware of more than what the group will authorize might range from mild forms of social isolation to the more aggressive declarations of insanity. (For very enlightening discussion on the role of peer and family pressures and the important consensual validation the reader is referred to the works of R.D. Laing, especially SANITY, MADNESS AND THE FAMILY.)

We are not involved here with the psychotic expressions of a personal otherness but only with those milder forms of differences in perception to which nonabnormally sensitive persons are subject. These persons may also be aware of the differences in the way they perceive things from the way others perceive them. They may be able to live with this knowledge either by sublimating their responses to their environment and by agreeing, superficially at any rate, to see the world as others see it, or they may decide to let their more sensitive perceptions be exercised in greater isolation. This last choice may have its dangers in the form of diminished human contact as well as its reward in a richer sensual experience.

In any event some light on this matter may have been shed by the results of the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperment Survey (GZTS) which was administered to the judges. Our original intention in administering this analytical tool was based on the hypothesis that possibly certain judges would select the works of certain artists because of some personality responsiveness to which there might have been some subliminal evidence in the work of art. Very little of this sort was indicated. What we did learn, however, was that there are some indications—although statistically nonsignificant—that low peer agree-ers and high peer agree-ers have somewhat different patterns of "lying." The term "lying" is used here as the authors of the survey use it in describing the scale devised to assess misrepresentation. The three "lie" scales are individually designated as Careless-Deviancy (CD), Gross Falsification (GF) and Subtle Falsification (SF).

It was observed that the GF and SF means were larger for the high peer agree-ers than for the low peer agree-ers. The means for the CD scale differed somewhat between the high peer agree-ers and the low peer agree-ers with the low peer agree-ers achieving a somewhat higher mean than the high peer agree-ers. It is, therefore, of interest to observe that carelessness is not a characteristic one would expect of a person desiring to conform. A conformist might be expected to be alert to the "correctness" of his behavior. If one wished to conform, to recognize and accept the values of the group, he would be scrupulous about attending to what they were. Fewer errors would be made as a result of carelessness. On the other hand one might also expect a person desiring to conform to make some effort to achieve the appearance of this conformity. It may be that the differences in both the GF and SF means reflect this.


From this data one might be tempted to conclude, as I do, that for the high peer agree-ers, that is, those whose aesthetic judgments were highly similar to those of others in the group, there exists the possibility that intentional falsification, an intentional misleading of those around you, is a significant technique employed by conforming individuals in a vital effort to avoid the insecurity brought on by individuality of expressions, to resign the responsibility for more perceptive awareness, as well as to shun the terror of aloneness.

If this interpretation is correct, it suggests that the psychologically healthy persons are those whose modes of adjustment have not included denying the evidence of their senses in an effort to achieve the false security held out by consensus and still have been able to withstand the terrors of uncertainty and the pressures of isolation.

It might appear that the low peer agree-ers care less about such matters as uniformity of awareness. Being, perhaps, more aware of the singularity as opposed to any uniformity of perceptions, they may even not fully realize that "bodies" of beliefs about things exist. The low peer agree-ers consistently gave evidence of their greater involvement in the judging process by assigning many more adjectives to the works they judged. It may be that low peer agree-ers have more to react to and are more willing to react to them because they are simply more aware and more sensitive over a broader gamut of sense data than are high peer agree-ers. This may mean that the low peer agree-ers are equipped with more sensors than are the high peer agree-ers. The high peer agree-ers may in a very real way need sensory assistance in order to make more adequate responses.


Since conforming people must decide to conform, it can be expected that this decision is based on some evidence. Perhaps out of fear they seek guideposts to behavior as those who are subject to night blindness seek the hand of their companions. They might feel in themselves some sensual lack which induces insecurity about the world, thus encouraging them to depend on others. I must ask, if this is so, why is it they chose the wrong person to follow? Is it a case of the blind following the blind? In one sense they might be expected to choose poorly if they lacked even that degree of awareness necessary to recognize a superior and effective talent.

A second order of behavioral reinforcement may develop from the group itself perpetuating itself in its own ignorance out of fear and uncertainty when it exerts influence on deviating members. Unlike highly perceptive persons, group members may be unable to tolerate difference in perception due to the fear induced by these differences. As fear, punishment, and false security alternate to maintain the integrity of the group, those who never were members can never become members because their particular perceptions have developed differently.

Certainly the unexpected relationship between the low-agreeing inexperienced judges and the experienced judges is a matter of some interest. If for some reason as few as 4% of the population, whether as a result of innate qualities, or by some accident of environment or education, give evidence of possessing special attributes or perceptions, and by institutional decision are denied the opportunity to broaden the base and raise the level of more appropriate responses as they might do by being in a position of influencing the young, then it will be the other 96% of the population which does so. This majority then, must arrive at important as well as unimportant decisions lacking both the sensitivity characteristic of the 4% as well as the opportunity to benefit by its counsel. Decisions will then be made by means other than special attributes or perceptions. What those means might be do not reassure me.

While I am aware of the possibility that highly perceptive persons probably exist who might also be achieving to an extent high enough to place them in positions of influence and leadership, I could not condone the cavalier disregard of the possibility of adding another 4% to that force. If it is social contagion which determines mass behavior, I would hope to have that process enriched by the perceptions of the gifted in order to provide greater assurance that the direction and quality of events are appropriate to the resolution of conflicts which confront us.

The reduction of errors in judgment, or the increase in the appropriateness of judgments, becomes a central issue in a world that is presently so delicately balanced that an ill-considered act by a poorly informed person could inflict appreciable damage to the human and nonhuman environments. Many may realize how conservative this statement really is. It is more likely that the action would be both final and fatal.

Paul R. Henrickson is Associate Professor of Art Research, University of Northern Iowa. He received his B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design and holds a M.Ed. from Boston State College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.


Child, Irwin L., "Personal Preferences as an Expression of Aesthetic Sensitivity," JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY, 1962, 30 (3), pp.496-512.

"Observations on the Meaning of Some Measures of Esthetic Sensitivity." JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY, 1964, 57 (1), pp.19-64.

"Personality of Esthetic Judgment in College Students," JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY, Vol. 33, September 1965, pp.476-511.

Eysenck, H.J., "The General Factor in Aesthetic Judgments." BRITISH JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY, 1940, 31, pp.94-102.

Eysenck, H.J. and Eysenck, S.B.G., MANUAL OF THE EYSENCK PERSONALITY INVENTORY (London: University of London Press Ltd., 1964).

Henrickson, P.R., "Lying, Dogmatic and Creative Persons," Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa, May 1970.

Henrickson, P.R. and Torrance, E.P., "School Discipline and the Creative Personality." ART EDUCATION BULLETIN, 1961, 18 (4), pp.36-42.