Best researchers ‘are perfectionists’, suggests study

Attributes of top scientists mapped in new paper

January 11, 2017
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10 out of 10: interviewees’ desire for perfection prompted them to set new challenges, which pushed them and expanded their limits, said the study

Want to be a leading scientist? You’ll need perseverance, perfectionism, curiosity and openness to new experiences, according to research.

You will also need to be able to regulate your emotions, have a strong sense of social responsibility, and dedicate at least 10 hours a day to your work. 

Liliana Araújo, research associate at the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, and colleagues came to these conclusions by looking at the personal characteristics and psychological skills of some of the most prominent Portuguese scientists.

The researchers asked six top Portuguese scientists about their education, past achievements, current performance, personality characteristics and social networks, among other things.

The interviewees highlighted the personality traits of perseverance, adaptive perfectionism, curiosity and openness to experiences as ingredients for achieving excellence, say the investigators in the journal High Ability Studies.

These common personality characteristics “seem to play a role in stimulating the development of a scientific mind and extraordinary cognitive skill”, they write.

The researchers also found that the group had a strong sense of social responsibility and felt a sense of duty to “contribute to a more sensible and knowledgeable society”.

“Many of them mentioned the importance of feeling fulfilled in different areas of their lives and the need to be exposed to a wide range of experiences related, as well as those not related, to scientific research,” they add.

All the interviewees said that it was important to set clear, realistic but ambitious goals day to day. Their desire for perfection prompted the interviewees to set new challenges, which then pushed them and expanded their limits, Dr Araújo and her colleagues say.

The most important motivational force for the scientists was their passion for their work, and the investigators found that this was a key factor in achieving excellence. But successful research and getting recognition from others also helped to drive them.

The top scientists described the stress and anxiety of doing research, and talked about the sacrifices they may have to make for their work, but said that these factors were an inherent part of the job. Most of those interviewed reported an emotional intensity in their devotion to work.

“Due to the intensity of emotional experiences, effective emotion regulation and coping strategies were essential,” say the authors. The participants said that having control over how, when and which emotions are felt and expressed enabled them to manage any hurdles and challenges day to day.

The investigators added that the scientists also helped to regulate the emotional state of co-workers, for example when others had a paper or grant application rejected.

Dr Araújo and her colleagues found that the top scientists they interviewed dedicated at least 10 hours a day to their work and described “an intense commitment to their job”. “All participants often worked at home in the evenings and weekends, dedicating many extra hours of their daily schedule,” they add.

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