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Einstein ‘not a good role model’ for budding scientists

Written by: Simon Baker
Published on: 20 Mar 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.”