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Traditionally, psychologists have spent their time studying the more unconventional members of society: those with depression, people with criminal histories, the romantics, etc. As a result, the traits of scientists are seldom examined. Moreover, most tests only analyze things that are necessary in a scientist, such as numerical skills or factual knowledge; however, it appears that the ‘mad professor’ stereotype has some foundation in the character traits needed for scientific success, and it may be worth a look.

You may have never considered the personality of a scientist before, but I’m sure the obvious traits spring to mind – they must be analytical, precise, intellectually honest, and possess other similar traits. The presence of these traits in a scientist is understandable, but there are actually several characteristics that you may not initially expect. Yet, they are there, time and time again, in even the most famous of scientists. Some of them make sense, whereas others appear to be quite unusually placed for the greatest minds in history.

For example, studies have indicated that many scientists are obsessive and introverted, and this is especially prevalent in history’s most renowned scientific individuals. Obsessiveness in the everyday man or woman is often associated with control complexes and irrational behaviour – extreme cases usually result in mental and physical deterioration. Likewise, introversion (in the more serious examples) is linked to social disorders. But in scientists, these traits have’t proven to be a major drawback; rather, they are practical advantages, which are often needed for making the largest steps in scientific understanding and theory – in the workplace at least.

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Salary has never been incredibly high for scientists, and so (for most) the job in hand must be their motivation. Becoming obsessed with a complex problem or a demanding task, and not using time for social activities, means that their minds are constantly working on their work without distraction. This is helpful for a scientist as many of the greatest discoveries of each century took years of hard and arduous work. Today, mathematics is accelerated with the help of computers, but for scientists up to just a few decades ago, equations involving long and complicated numbers (that may seem tiny by modern standards) took up a lot of time, so dedication and persistence are essential.

The University of Tennessee published a study in 2012 which compared the personality traits of over 2000 scientists with non-scientists. The scientists were found to be much more pessimistic and emotionally unstable, but also tend to be ‘rule breakers’. The high levels of nonconformity may be worrying to some, considering many scientists work around classified information and dangerous materials. As a result, ‘managerial vigilance’ was suggested in order to look out for unethical behaviour such as theft or leaking of information.

However, pessimism and an attitude to do what you want is actually advantageous. Skeptical thinking allows results to be analysed thoroughly and nearly all bias is eliminated. This means that, when findings are published or discoveries are made, these findings are more trustworthy. Moreover, unless you work for a company with research directed at a definite goal, rule breaking and being open to new ideas is beneficial in that it encourages those to explore their own interest and follow unexpected or anticipated paths. Brian Cox once said that the key to the best science is ‘blue sky thinking’, and this involves researching areas and concepts that aren’t forced, but those that come in moments of inspiration.

In addition, emotional instability is also a repeated finding throughout scientists, and not just modern day scientists, but also through the previous few centuries. Even though they make amazing contributions from the work place, it seems that many scientists find problems at home, social issues, and difficulties with their love lives. Depression, divorce, and loneliness are prevalent, so help is offered as counselling or employee assistance programs to minimize the risks to themselves and others.

For scientists entering the long term profession, it is important to use self-monitoring to ensure that these traits are directed towards fueling their careers in ways that are productive, beneficial, and sound (we are all familiar with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster).

I shall leave you with a quote from Isaac Newton, said soon before his death in 1727. “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”


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