Caring Thinking: The new intelligence

Author: Jan Brunt
Flinders University, SA.

Caring Thinking was introduced by Matthew Lipman at the 6th International Conference on Thinking in Boston in 1994. How valid is the notion of Caring Thinking? How does it contribute to our understanding of the nature of giftedness and the manner in which we approach the educational needs of the gifted?
The following paper persues these questions as the basis for a workshop which defines Caring Thinking. The topic was originally researched for a training package for gifted educators.


For Lipman (author of Philosophy For Children Program), Caring Thinking is seen to be the third of the three "C's" that encapsulate the nature of the gifted intellect: Creative aspect, Critical aspect, and Caring aspect. On this basis of association it is argued that Caring Thinking becomes the third aspect comprising Complex Thinking: Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Caring Thinking.

While Creative (Synthesis) and Critical (Evaluation) Thinking are established high order components of Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Processes, Caring Thinking is not. Bloom does however acknowledge a feeling or emotional influence to the Evaluation and Synthesis processes but does not recognise this as a distinct intellectual process. Krathwohl, Bloom & Masia (1964), on the other hand, show acceptance of emotional thinking by ascribing stages in their Taxonomy of the Affective Domain. To argue for Caring Thinking as an entity in itself would be as futile as arguing that Creative and Critical Thinking are mutually exclusive. To argue against its existence would be equally as futile.

Coming to terms with caring thinking

Whilst there are many definitions of giftedness, Morelock (1992), goes further towards identifying what distinguishes giftedness in an individual person rather than the traditional identification of capabilities or potential of a category. In doing so, Morelock points to a stimulus factor that I believe is the crucial key to understanding the inner being of the gifted and the notion of Caring Thinking.

"Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity." p.14

This can be simply stated as:

Giftedness is:

The combination of these factors create emotional intensity and strong sensitivity at a depth not experienced by the non-gifted.

The greater the cognitive abilities the greater these differences.

It is this deep level intensity that more noticeably distinguishes gifted students from their chronological peers in the form of intensity of perception, intensity of feeling, intensity of experience. They may be seen in behaviours that are more intensely physical and emotional, and motivated by an intense social and moral conscience. Dabrowski (1967, 1972), in explaining his Theory of Positive Disintegration in higher intelligence (emotional development), termed this intensity forms of 'superstimulatability', or 'overexcitability', and saw it evident in five areas of the psyche.

1. Psychomotor overexcitability:

These students have an advanced capacity to be active.

Visible behaviours are: abundance of energy, restlessness, alertness, increased body movement, internal drive, impulsive behaviour, compulsion to movement.

They are noticeably highly animated, using almost their whole body to communicate. They may constantly rock, or perhaps tap or move fingers or head in a repetitive pattern. Piechowski (1991), attributes nervous habits such as nail biting, passions for fast and dangerous sports, daring delinquent behaviour, and even the drive of a workaholic to psychomotor overexcitability. Such behaviours tend to resemble those caused by body chemical imbalance resulting in cases of unfortunate misdiagnoses as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

2. Sensual overexcitability:

These students possess senses that are finely attuned to subtle differences.

Visible behaviours are: awareness of fine detail picked up through the senses, appreciation for the subtleties of colour, tonal sounds, and tactile sensations. Imperfections seem exaggerated, eg. roughness of clothing labels, music not quite in key, art work detail not authentic to the period. They seem to 'nit-pick' over choice of words, punctuation, spelling.

Sensual overexcitability coupled with the general tendency of the gifted toward perfectionism may lead to extreme frustration, not only with fine detail in their own work and/or that of others, but also irritability with their environment. Sensory perception at this level tends neither to be easily detected nor compassionately understood by others. Continued feelings of aloneness in this may lead to an irritable disposition or even a negative attitude toward life itself.

3. Intellectual overexcitability:

These students' thirst for knowledge and desire for truth is easily recognizable and so more familiar of the overexcitabilities..

Visible behaviours are: overwhelming curiosity, continual asking for, or thinking about, the 'how' and 'why', and exploring consequences of ideas.

At an early age, perhaps 2 years, questioning extends far in advance for their age, going beyond the typical egocentric focus. Issues of human rights, the environment, disasters such as famines, refugees come to their attention earlier than their chronological aged peers. Unfortunately, this is understood on an intellectual level but without the emotional maturity or life experiences to cope on an emotional level (Webb, Meckstroth & Tolan, 1991). Such information tends to distress and leave the young gifted person with feelings of helpless.

4. Imaginational overexcitability:

These students possess the ability to lift and expand thought in a creative way.

Visible behaviours are: vivid imagery, a richness of associative ideas, elaborate language, a liking for the unusual, and a predisposition to dream, fantacize and invent.

They perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, play with ideas and make unusual links between them. Unfortunately, accompanying the preoccupation with creative thought comes a strong tendency to be disorganized, or less regard given to the routines of daily living. Therefore, benefit is gained from being taught organizational skills of self discipline, and time management . The danger becomes that if their lives aren't perceived by themselves as successful then they may become divorced from grounded reality and retreat to the inner world of an introvert.

5. Emotional overexcitability

provides the stimulus for the caring thinker and so is at the heart of Caring Thinking.

Visible behaviours are: broad range of feelings, deep and intense attachments, strong compassion, heightened sense of responsibility, scrupulous and relentless self-examination.

These students demonstrate what Howard Gardner (1983), terms the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. They show clear understanding of, and emotional sensitivity for, others and themselves. They posses both the inherent emotional consequence of a higher intellectual capacity, that of intensity of emotional experience and awareness, and strong sensitivity. Unfortunately, this means that stable or healthy emotional development does not come automatically for gifted students (Webb et al, 1983). High levels of intellectual ability, rather than guaranteeing high levels of stable emotional development, more predictably increases complex emotional development and propensity towards instability.

If it can be said that gifted students tend to have a better sense and control of their academic self than their emotional self (Roedell, 1984), then there is a case for the necessity to acknowledge and address their affective needs as well as their academic needs. It points to the importance of counselling and experienced teachers in guiding the gifted in developing strategies to cope with their intensity of feelings and so guard against becoming overwhelmed and prone to emotional disorders (Morelock, 1992; Piechowski, 1991).

General agreement also exists on the importance of addressing the affective needs on the basis of the correlating effect emotional development and consequently self esteem are shown to have upon moral development. Low self esteem is seen to limit both emotional and moral development (Clark, 1992; Webb et al, 1991).

A different perspective, however, is provided by Silverman (in Davis & Rimm, 1994, p 404). She views the possession of both high level sensitivity and deep emotional intensity as a positive force that 'energizes the highly gifted to great accomplishments' and to lead interesting lives. Although low self esteem is cited here, the presence of traits such as altruism and ethics are indicators of high level moral development. Whilst humans possess genetic dispositions, it is well argued that the response to the environment develops behaviours. On these grounds it is suggested that environmental factors act as a means of intervention in promoting moral development even in the presence of the limiting factor of low self esteem.

As freely as examples of positive instances can be gathered, so too can examples for the negative. Some of the most recognizable instances where these balances have not been achieved are evident in the misdirected intellectual powers of Hitler and Idi Armin whose distorted ethical and compassionate development caused suffering of immense magnitude for humanity. Such is a concern of Clark (1992) that "the level of intellectual power indicated by giftedness could be used against a person or society in general just as it could be used toward positive goals." p.135

On this basis it is argued that if gifted students are to be ensured a rightful place as a productive member of their community then their education should include both cognitive and caring learning experiences. If Caring Thinking is a skill, as well as embedded as an aspect of the gifted intellect, then like other skills, it is teachable. Such is the rationale for teaching Caring Thinking to the gifted.

What is Caring Thinking?

Caring Thinking is the side of giftedness that stems from the heart of the person. Thinking with your heart and your personal values. Caring Thinking empowers students to establish a sound value system from which to make sound and compassionate, value judgements.

Whilst emotional overexcitability (or intensity) and deep sensitivity are at the core of Caring Thinking, all other excitabilities come into play. Lipman (1994), sees Caring Thinking as having four distinct, but interrelated, aspects .

1. Valuational Thinking: To value is to highly appreciate or prize.

This has two parts.

Although core values or beliefs may be strong, they can change in extreme circumstances, eg. 'Under what circumstance would it be OK to steal?' (or go against your strong belief or give up what you value). The importance of valuational thinking lies in that it underpins the establishment of ethical principles.

All valuational thinking firstly involves thinking through a Values Clarification Process of choosing, prizing and affirming.

The following example Activities can be used to activate Valuational Thinking and trigger an emotional response that lasts much longer than the task itself. They require both the Values Clarification process and Values Realization in responding to the abstract and the concrete values.

  1. Compile a tray containing objects that provide a variety of sensory appeal, eg. a gnarled piece of drift wood, a smooth pebble, a silky tassel or fringing, large and small feathers, a stem of lavender or rosemary. Select participants to come and stand by the tray. Ask them to look at all the objects and then focus on just one for a few moments. Then, in turn, select that object. If two students want the same object let one select another or not select at all. Ask them to nurture the object in their hands, not taking their eyes off it. Ask them to look deep inside themselves and identify what is it that they prize in this object. Ask each in turn. (They should want to talk about the sensory and aesthetic aspects as well as the personal values eg. showing strength of character, relating it to their own character, and describing the memories it evokes.)
  2. Prizing the abstract........................Prizing the concrete ( (Something I value) ) With ______ in my life I _________ Complete the venn diagram for something you value by noting the concrete facts you prize, and also the abstract qualities you prize. Finish the statement to show its holistic significance to your life. This may be a significant person in the past or present, an invention, something from nature, or prized possession.
  3. Respond to the following:-

As with all Caring Thinking activities, the emphasis must be on thinking with the heart. The Values Clarification process requires time to reflect and internalize, come to terms with what this means to me, in order to be able to effectively articulate Caring Thinking. While the above activity might also lend itself to brainstorming, the outcome would be triggered by a Creative Thinking process rather than Caring Thinking.

* Students with heightened sensual and emotional overexcitabilities have particular strength in the Valuational Thinking side of Caring Thinking.

The key characteristics of a Valuational thinker may be summed up as:-

2. Affective Thinking: To experience strong emotional and cognitive response to an offence.

This is the emotional response to a wrong doing by a person having a clear understanding of right and wrong, and a strong sense of justice. Attitudes and emotions of others have a strong impact on these Caring thinkers. They feel intense empathy and will respond with indignation that injustice has been done to an innocent person or creature. Their response shows great depth of commitment, clarity of thought, willingness to articulate the case in terms of right and wrong, and strong determination to see justice done. This is genuine altruistic or 'other-regarding' behaviour which only occurs in the presence of empathy.

Gifted students, at a much earlier age than most people, are able to suspect, to interpret body language and the emotions in the tone of voice. They may realize subtle implications or read excess meaning into ordinary statements, jump to conclusions, take offence or reject statements or attitudes out of hand (Webb et al 1991). Offence to themselves or others is taken seriously. They seem to suffer even more than the victim.

Affective thinking is about acknowledging these feelings and working through ways to deal with them appropriately. This includes becoming familiar with the rights of the individual under their society's laws and the processes that preserve these rights, eg. opportunities to participate in making class and playground rules, to write 'To The Editor', and speak to the School Council, the Student Council or the Principal. Also, discussing both sides or different perspective of an issue, or focusing on how people are effected by another's behaviour, helps to blur the black and white/right and wrong tendency of the gifted, eg. discuss feelings when:

The 'I feel _____ when you ______ me' statement helps others to be aware of the emotional consequences of their actions.

* Both the emotional and intellectual overexcitabilities are involved in this area of Caring thinking.

The key characteristics of an Affective thinker may be summed up as:-

3. Active Thinking: To passionately care about and be involved with a cause .

Peter Singer, in "How are we to live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest", suggests that "in promoting the concept of an ethical life we need to be strongly motivated to act in ways which will contribute to making the world a better place for all of its inhabitants". (p. 29) This exemplifies Active Thinking. Active Thinking is about using language, guesture, planning and/or action to support a cause or belief. Focussing on what I can do about a circumstance or situation rather than being overwhelmed and feeling helpless.

This may involve community service, being advocates by writing to local councils or members of parliament, or researching and, gaining and sharing knowledge of what reforms or benefits have been achieved by the cause being supported. Adolescents would benefit from being informed about world volunteer services and how they could become involved at either a skilled or unskilled level.

* Both the emotional and psychomotor overexcitabilities come into play to demonstrate depth of sincerity and passionate commitment to 'caring about' something in this area of Caring Thinking.

The key characteristics of an Active thinker may be seen as :-

4. Normative thinking: To compare the actual with what could be.

Is about knowing the reality of the situation but having a vision or sense of idealism of how things should, or could, be. Gifted students frequently become distressed by news or documentaries relating to adverse situations because of this evident discrepancy. The anguish felt is compounded by such deep concern for humanity as well as fairness and justice. Intellectual, emotional and imaginational overexcitabilities are all involved. Normative Thinking may be on a local or global level.

Often the gifted are concerned with universal laws and principles, global issues such as preservation of the environment, human and animal rights. This tends to be in such a way that rises above the usual provincial and personal ethical concerns of most people. To do so requires a shift away, or 'de-centring', from their self.

Philosophy embodies three fundamental ethical strategies: empathy, moral imagination and de-centring. Therefore, teaching philosophy programs or facilitating philosophical discussions benefits Normative Thinking, and acknowledges and values this detached perspective of gifted students. The following philosophical questions involve Normative Thinking:-

As gifted students grow, Normative Thinking is evident in their difficulty in tolerating many ordinary aspects of our society. Discrepancies, inconsistencies, loopholes and exceptions are sources of irritation, as are society's observances of nonsensical rituals and traditions. Frustration is shown at why adults allow obvious problems to go unsolved, yet they wield so much power (Webb et al, 1991). Therefore, sensual overexcitability is also involved in Normative Thinking.

Without Active Thinking being part of Normative Thinking, idealism can be stymied and cynicism result. This rebellion, whether passive or active, reflects alienation or being out of step with the rest of the world and can cause school drop-outs, rejecting family or societal values and structure.

Many national or world conflicts and issues, that disturb gifted students, are frequently presented by media on a surface, observational level but with strong emotive intent. This holds little ground for deep understanding or keys to answers that the gifted desire and so leaves them emotionally bound. Learning about the facts and underlying historical perspective to these situations is crucial to the gifted student's understanding on an intellectual level and for de-centring away from the deep empathetic experience. This allows the engagement of Active Thinking and the thrust toward positive and productive thinking. Future Problem Solving is an excellent competition providing high quality information and opportunity to work through global issues.

* All five overexcitabilities are involved in Normative Thinking.

The key characteristics may be seen as:-

The role of ethical thinking

In examining the list of key characteristics of Caring thinkers a strong thread of personal values, morality and justice is evident. Kohlberg (1964), believes the gifted tend to operate at a higher level of moral reasoning than their chronological aged peers, reaching the highest level (stage 5 & 6) in their teenage years, where as only 10-15% of all adults ever reach this stage. To operate at this level of moral development one shows strong personal conscience regardless of peer or society's pressures (stage 5), and concern with global issues, and for humanity (stage 6). These too, are outcomes of Normative Thinking from the process of 'de-centring' or stepping outside one's self to have an altruistic perspective as a citizen of the world. As it is emotion that fuels commitment to ethical principles it is no wonder that ethics is so strongly a part of Caring Thinking.


A serious issue for gifted students is that their early concern for moral issues, be they personal, local or global, is at a high cognitive and deep emotional levels whilst their ability to cope and act to right these situations is beyond their control. For this and other reasons gifted educators have long been advocators of an affective component to the differentiated curriculum. Lipman's viewing of Caring Thinking as an aspect of intelligence takes this into a deeper dimension by acknowledging not only the affective traits of the gifted but also the importance of Dabrowski's overexcitabilities as the driving force effecting all aspects of thinking and motivating behaviour. Teaching Caring Thinking addresses the intensity of feelings, compassion, sense of justice, and empowers students with strategies to respond at a productive and more worthwhile level.


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Roedell W. A. (1984). Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children. In Roeper Review, 6, 127-130

Singer, P. (1993). How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest. The Text Pub. Comp.: Melbourne

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Copyright 1996 by Jan Brunt
Last revised April 17 1996.