Psychology of science #1 Why does one become a scientist?

In this blog post I introduce one of my extra-curricular interests: psychology. Psychology underpins science and conservation in a multitude of ways, from what it takes to become a successful scientist to the way conservationists make decisions under limited information. Here, I introduce current thinking on what motivates individuals to become scientists.

Science is one of the major successes of the human species and has played a dominant role in shaping modern culture. Scientific thinking involves a multitude of intellectual processes, such as abstraction, problem solving, divergent thinking, creativity, spatial reasoning and verbal expression. In this sense, science is a prime cognitive activity. Nonetheless, the psychology of science is a fairly recent discipline, compared to the philosophy, sociology and history of science. The first academic society for the psychology of science opened in 2006, and the first peer-reviewed journal on the topic was published in 2008. A small number of academic anthologies have recently become available, bringing together the limited amount of knowledge available of the topic (Feist 2008; Fesit & Gorman 2012; Proctor & Capaldi 2012).

Why is the psychology of science so poorly studied? Science cannot be separated from the people who do it, and the mental operations that are at its source. Simonton, a prominent psychologist of science, wrote in Scientific genius:  “Psychology is mandatory if we wish to comprehend the scientific genius as the generator or science”. However, science is usually taught as a list of facts that have appeared out of thin air, or at least out of a naive and objective being. Whilst my high school history lessons readily evoked motivations of individuals and societies, science lessons were devoid of any human context. High school biology textbooks could well have been written by robots. Even the structure of the scientific paper, which scientists follow every day, erases all signs of its authors and their cognitive journey to the proposed conclusions (Medawar 1964). In the media, scientists are often depicted as cold, calculating or unaware of their role in wider society (Goldacre 2008). The results of science have been separated from the agents of science, humans and their brains.

The psychology of science is undeniably of theoretical and practical interest.  The scientific act lies at the intersection of cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience. How can a new, potentially revolutionary concept emerge from ones already set into the brain? Psychology has already started to answer this question, through the detailed study of scientists’ notebooks, setting science tasks under controlled conditions, and observations of scientists at work. Explicitation, analogy, divergent thinking and visualization have all been shown to be crucial steps in the scientific process. For example, Einstein made extensive use of visual thought experiments when forming his theory of relativity: imagining himself travelling at the speed of light, and imagining two observers riding on either the northern or southern pole of a magnet (Feist, 2008). Recent work on theory change has also shed light on how scientists and societal contexts interact to cause paradigm shifts, and why many ideas are simultaneously discovered, such as the discovery of period doubling in the logistic model by Feigenbaum, Coullet and Tresser.

From an applied perspective, the psychology of science can inform education, human resources management and policy-making. Why do individuals become scientists? What separates excellent from average scientists? How can we sustain public interest in science? Answers to these questions are crucial to elaborating good scientific programmes throughout the education system, attracting new students to science, and supporting the academic output of existing scientists. I also believe that a little reflection from scientists on these questions could also help many make the most of their cognitive abilities.

In this first essay on the psychology of science, I focus on the first step in the life of a scientist: who becomes a scientist? Many believe that those who become scientists can only be distinguished from the rest of the population by their intelligence, or Intellectual Quotient (IQ). For example, PhD physicists have an average IQ of 140, almost three standard deviations above the mean of the population (Feist, 2008). However, the ability of IQ tests to determine cognitive capacities is heavily criticized, and a large body of research is accumulating on the different facets of intelligence. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1983) is one example of a pluralistic approach to the study of intelligence. Scientists sometimes do score higher than the rest of the population on one intelligence component (e.g. engineers and mathematicians score higher on the “logical-mathematical” component of Gardner’s test), but this still a long shot from concluding that scientists are generally more “intelligent”. In addition, most cognitive tasks are achieved at similar rates by individuals with IQs over 120, regardless of their precise IQ score. Overall, high intelligence would appear to be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for scientific thought and interest.

Francis Galton collected self-report data from 180 Englishmen of science in 1874
Francis Galton collected self-report data from 180 Englishmen of science in 1874

Three driving factors for the choice of a career in science are currently supported by psychological data: personality, cognitive needs and self-identification. Francis Galton (Darwin’s first cousin) published in 1874the first scientific investigation of the characteristics of scientists and geniuses, and found that they showed high levels of energy, physical health, perseverance, good memories and remarkable need for independence. This was the first step in forming a theory of interest in science that came above the common concept of intelligence. Since the 1950s, more studies have focused on the personalities of scientists and identified three typical personality traits of scientists: conscientiousness, openness, and introversion/independence. Scientists are on average about half a standard deviation higher in conscientiousness than non-scientists (Feist, 1998), which is perhaps not surprising. Most of my peers are extremely meticulous, whether in the lab, field, or at home, and have been since early childhood. One could even argue that biologists in particular show extreme forms of conscientiousness associated with cataloguing and categorizing living things.

Taxonomists - conscientiousness at its limits
Taxonomists – conscientiousness at its limits

Openness to experience is made up of traits such as “curious”, “flexible”, and “imaginative”. Although scientists show higher levels of openness than non-scientists, the larger difference lies within the scientific community, with creative scientists scoring a third of a standard deviation higher on openness than less creative scientists (Feist, 1998). Scientists are more solitary and independent than non-scientists, though this is more the case for physical scientists and mathematicians than social scientists. For example, research points out to a predisposition for Asperger’s syndrome in science, math and engineering, a syndrome involving impaired social interest and stereotyped behaviours (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001). A particularly interesting point is the tendency for scientists being less social and affiliative than non-scientists, despite networking and collaborating being an integral part of a scientist’s life.

Scientists are the target audience for brain teasers
Scientists are the ultimate target audience for brain teasers

In addition to personality, the need for cognition is an important predictor of interest in science. The need for cognition can be defined as “an individual’s tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavours”. I thoroughly enjoy brain teasers, and find reading “light” fiction less enjoyable than picking up Godel, Escher, Bach. Need for cognition influences interest in science over and above cognitive ability and personality traits. For example, need for cognition and open-minded thinking predicts critical thinking ability even after the cognitive ability (SAT scores) of individuals is controlled for (West et al. 2008). In a study on 655 college undergraduates, need for cognition explains variance in interest in science over and above variance explained by personality (Feist, 2012), implying that need for cognition is not merely a personality dimension.

All in all, studies predict that an open-minded, somewhat introverted, conscientious person who likes cognitive puzzles is more likely to be interested in science – but is that all there is to the story?

Self-image is increasingly recognised as a key factor for interest in science. Can one easily envision oneself as a “scientist”? People are more likely to pursue careers that match their identity and self-perceived abilities, and self-image might explain gender and socio-economic differences in science. In a study of 211 college students, men with either high or low science self-images were more interested in science than women with the same science self-image, but the effect was greater when science self-image was low. White middle school students also reported higher self perception of ability in science than non-white students (McGarrigle 2009). More research is needed on why these differences exist and how to overcome them, in order to promote equal access to school and university science programmes. Moreover, the role of sociological factors in determining interest in science has not been investigated beyond anecdotal evidence. For example, children of immigrant workers are more likely to show an interest in science, but whether this is due to meritocratic family values or multicultural perspectives is unclear.

Scientific interest, whether based on cognitive predispositions, personality traits, self-image or social factors, is the precursor to a career in science. Psychology of science could make a major contribution to educational programmes and human resources management by systematically investigating why some individuals are interested in science. However, not all scientists make significant contributions to their field and devise revolutionary theories. What are the psychological characteristics of highly successful scientists? Are these characteristics different from those that generally predispose individuals towards science? The next post will investigate the interaction between psychological traits, creativity and experience in eminent scientists.

Baron-Cohen et al. (2001) The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence from Apserger’s syndrome/high functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians, Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 31:5-17

Feist (2008)The psychology of science and the origins of the scientific mind, Yale University Press

Feist & Gorman (2012) Handbook of the psychology of science, Springer

Gardner (1983) Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences, New York: Basic Books

Goldacre (2008) Bad science, Faber & Faber

McGarrigle et al. (2005) Student self perception of ability in science, American Sociological Association

Medawar (1964) Is the scientific paper a fraud?  BBC Talk

Proctor & Capaldi (2012) Psychology of science: implicit and explicit processes, Oxford University Press

West et al. (2008)Heuristics and biases as measures of critical thinking: associations with cognitive ability and thinking dispositions, Journal of educational psychology, 100(4), 930-941


9 thoughts on “Psychology of science #1 Why does one become a scientist?

  1. Ms, Bland: Very nicely done. As one of the main “movers” in the psychology of science, I was impressed to see someone from the “outside” making use of what we psychologists of science are doing. Your question of why one becomes a scientist is in fact a central one for our field and still has many unanswered questions (i.e., the related one of why does one leave science after starting?). Our society is having their biennial conference next summer and we hope to see you there!
    ~Greg Feist

    1. Hi Greg,
      Thanks for your comment, I hope the article did justice to the topic. I find it a fascinating field, and hopefully applications can make their way into the practice of science itself. I am planning to learn and write more about it on my blog. I would love to attend the conference – I am not sure I can justify funding from the School of Biology though! Cheers, L

  2. Nice blog Lucie. To be honest I have never thought more than fleetingly about this topic. Now I am off to spend the next few hours looking into it a little further instead of finishing this grant proposal ;).

  3. Very, very interesting. I was wondering if there is research on how many scientists consider themselves as “good scientists”. I heard somewhere of the “imposteur” syndrome, i.e. the fact that many scientists think they are so bad, they don’t know how they made it to the level they are. Many consider themselves as “frauds” or not deserving to be in the field. Is that true?

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