Einstein ‘not a good role model’ for budding scientists

People may be more motivated to pursue a STEM career by figures thought of as ‘persistent’ but not geniuses   

March 16, 2020
Source: Getty

Ask anyone to name a famous scientist from history and Albert Einstein will be near the top of their list.

But if we want to inspire more people to think they have what it takes to become academics, then the godfather of modern physics – or anyone thought of as having innate genius – may not be the best role model, according to new research.

A team of psychologists based in the US analysed how people’s scientific motivation was affected after reading stories about setbacks faced by Einstein – often associated with exceptional natural talent – and electric light bulb inventor Thomas Edison, whose success tends to be linked to persistence and diligence.

Despite the “struggle stories” being identical, those who read about Edison “were less likely to view exceptional talent as a prerequisite for success” than those who read about Einstein, while they were also slightly more likely to hold the belief that intelligence was “malleable” and could be improved with hard work.

The researchers found that when the different sets of people were asked to complete a maths task, those given Edison’s story “were more motivated” to put effort into it, “consequently performing better than those who were exposed to [the] Einstein [story]”.

According to the paper, published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, the findings build on previous research suggesting that people may be less inclined to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics if they think that some kind of natural super-intelligence is needed.

“Hence, people, especially teachers and parents, should be careful in how they frame certain scientists as role models when encouraging others…to view those scientists as their role models,” say authors Danfei Hu, Janet Ahn, Melissa Vega and Xiaodong Lin-Siegler.

This even included using fictional characters such as Bruce Banner – the scientist from the Marvel comic books and films who turns into The Hulk – who “are often delineated as geniuses that have special access to esoteric knowledge”.

Ms Hu, co-author of the study and a social psychology doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University, said the findings showed that it may be important for society “to somewhat deemphasise the role of intellectual talent in science”.  

“The belief that innate talent is a prerequisite for success in science can be threatening, particularly when people think they don’t already possess that gift,” she said, adding that educators should show “that struggling is a normal part of doing science. Setbacks and failures are not indicators of one’s lack of talent in science, but a common part of scientific achievement.”



Print headline: Einstein ‘not a good role model’ for scientists

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related articles

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented


Featured jobs

Quality Assurance Engineer

St Marys University, Twickenham

Research Associate in Marine Technology

Liverpool John Moores University

Academic English Instructor

Zhejiang University

Medical Resources Specialist

United Arab Emirates University