Like in any line of work, good role models and mentors are essential motivators that predict career success. However, it’s often easy to lose track of the bigger picture and think that you’ll never be good enough for a career in science. After all, that’s for geniuses and nerds, some might say — except that’s not true at all.
Yes, working in science is demanding, but it just means that you have to work hard to achieve success, whether it’s graduating, publishing papers, or making a Nobel Prize-worthy breakthrough.
In other words, perspective can be everything. Case in point, psychologists at Penn State, William Paterson University, New York University, and Columbia University published a new study showing that scientists who are known for their hard work — like Thomas Edison — are more inspiring than those typically recognized for their genius talent, like Albert Einstein.
“There’s a misleading message out there that says you have to be a genius in order to be a scientist,” said Daniel Hu, a doctoral student at Penn State and co-author of the new study. “This just isn’t true and may be a big factor in deterring people from pursuing science and missing out on a great career. Struggling is a normal part of doing science and exceptional talent is not the sole prerequisite for succeeding in science. It’s important we help spread this message in science education.”
Hu and colleagues performed three experiments involving 176, 162, and 288 young participants each. While previous studies that investigated the impact of effective models focused on their qualities, the new study looked at how aspiring scientists’ own beliefs might affect their motivation.
In the first study, the participants read the same story about the struggles a scientist had to overcome during his career. Half of the volunteers were told the story was about Einstein, while the other half believed it was about Edison.
Those who were told the story was about Einstein were more inclined to believe talent was the reason behind his success despite the fact that the two stories were identical. Meanwhile, those who thought the story was about Edison were more motivated to solve a series of math problems.
“This confirmed that people generally seem to view Einstein as a genius, with his success commonly linked to extraordinary talent,” Hu said. “Edison, on the other hand, is known for failing more than 1,000 times when trying to create the light bulb, and his success is usually linked to his persistence and diligence.”
In the second study, the participants were again asked to read a different story about the struggles of an up-and-coming scientist. Half were told it was about Einstein, while the other half was informed that the story was about Mark Johnson, a fabricated name that was unfamiliar to them. Those who thought the story was about the unfamiliar scientist were less likely to believe natural brilliance was necessary to succeed in science and were more likely to score better on math problems.
In the final study, the participants pitted the two types of stereotypical role models — genius for Einstein and hard work/perseverance for Edison — against a control. In this case, the control was an unknown scientist.
Like in the previous studies, the participants read a story that was attributed to Einstein, Edison, or some unknown scientist they had never heard of before. Compared to the control, Edison motivated the participants while Einstein actually demotivated them.
“The combined results suggest that when you assume that someone’s success is linked to effort, that is more motivating than hearing about a genius’s predestined success story,” Hu said. “Knowing that something great can be achieved through hard work and effort, that message is much more inspiring.”
This sort of insight could prove useful in an educational setting when designing programs meant to inspire students of all ages. Young people and children, in particular, are very susceptible to role models and often mimic those around them whom they look up to. The key message has to be that struggling for success is the norm, not an exception.
The findings appeared in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.