Associations uncovered between scientists’ personalities and their research style

To solve the biggest challenges in science and medicine, many commentators argue what’s needed is more inter-disciplinary research. The idea is that the cross-pollination of thought and techniques from different fields helps to break new ground. A new study finds that some scientists are more disposed to this kind of boundary-defying research than others, by virtue of their personality.

Thomas Bateman and Andrew Hess focused on the field of diabetes research, which they chose because it’s a vast, long-running research area with many different sub-disciplines. They surveyed 466 researchers (57 per cent male; 60 per cent in the US) about their personality and analysed their research output from 2001 to 2011.

The personality trait “conscientiousness” was associated with conducting more “deep” research, concentrated within a specialist domain, as was being more competitive and having a focus on achieving high performance. This makes sense if you consider that, in a pilot survey, participants perceived a deep research project to be less risky and with more potential importance than a broad research project.

Conscientiousness was negatively associated with a broader research repertoire, while being oriented towards learning (as opposed to achievement) was related to having engaged in more broad research. The personality trait “openness to experience” was associated with conducting more deep and broad research, presumably because this trait represents characteristics that promote scientific enquiry of all flavours.

Bateman and Hess said their insights could help scientists “make informed and strategic decisions about projects and approaches to their work”. I’m not so sure – these new findings only tell us about correlations between personality and research output, not the consequences. Just because a more competitive, conscientious person is drawn to deep research, does not mean that route will bring them more success, nor that they will find it more rewarding than broad research. However, these new results will surely interest scientific recruiters looking to attract more inter-disciplinary research to their institutions.

Bateman, T., & Hess, A. (2015). Different personal propensities among scientists relate to deeper vs. broader knowledge contributions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1421286112

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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