Description: Have you heard the arguments that have been made about the relationship between age and success across a variety of fields? Based on the young ages of Mozart, Marie Curie, and Einstein when they made some of their most impressive contributions to their areas of endeavor, it has been argued that the sorts of creativity driven by intellect and insight that are necessary for success in some enterprises may in fact be the products of younger minds and that as people working in those areas age the creativity and the impact of their “insights” diminishes. The research discussed in the article linked below challenges this assumption and suggests that, (as is many times the case), that we need to be cautious when jumping towards causal explanations based on what is essentially correlational data. Before you read the article think a little bit about what else, other than their brains getting old and slowing down, might be differentially true about people working in scientific or musical enterprises that could account for higher levels of early career success.
Source: When It Comes to Success, Age Really Is Just the Number, Benedict Carey, Science, New York Times
Date: November 3, 2016
Links: Article Link — http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/science/stem-careers-success-achievement.html
So, is it true that in some fields of endeavor you have to make your mark early or not at all? Apparently not. The authors of the research paper discussed in the linked article suggest that high impact success is contributed to by an amalgamation of personality factors, persistence, luck, and intelligence and that age is essentially irrelevant to when big breakthroughs occur. Essentially they found that younger scientists, at least in the area of physics where they did their research, tended to have more high impact studies simply as a result of their productivity. That is, they do more experiments and as such increase the odds that they would come up with something impressive. The researchers came to this conclusion after using statistical techniques that allowed them to control for the effects of productivity. When they did they found that physicists were as likely to produce impactful studies at 25 or at 50 years of age. Essentially, taking on the right project at the right time is really a matter of luck. An additional factor that researchers identified as playing a role in the production of quality work was something they called Q. Q is basically skill and can involve things like intelligence, motivation, openness to new ideas, and ability to collaborate well with others. In addition, factors like writing skill the make differences well. It is one thing to have a great idea and quite another to be able to effectively communicate it in ways that allow it to excite others and help them to see how genuinely great the idea is. The take-home message seems to be that we need to be wary of causal conclusions drawn on the basis of assumptions. Rather than thinking that the things that contribute to scientific success rust with age (view which fits certain stereotypes about aging which are not well supported by data) this work suggest that a closer look produces a much clearer and more positive picture of the nature of scientific success over the lifespan.
Questions for Discussion:
- What sorts of things were once thought to wear out as potentially brilliant scientists age?
- What alternative explanations do the authors of the research discussed in the linked article offer is an explanation for the apparent relationship between age and high impact scientific discovery?
- What sort of things might we do to avoid the possibility that our scientific hypotheses about human development and achievement are being influenced by our stereotypes about human development and aging?
References (Read Further):
Sinatra, Roberta Wang, Dashun, Deville, Pierre, Song, Chaoming, Barabási, Albert-László (2106) Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact, Science, 354(6312), DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5239
Bonaccorsi, A., & Daraio, C. (2003). Age effects in scientific productivity. Scientometrics, 58(1), 49-90.
Massimiliano, P. (2015). The effects of age on divergent thinking and creative objects production: a cross-sectional study. High Ability Studies, 26(1), 93-104.