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  • How Development and Personality Influence Scientific Thought,Interest, and Achievement

    Gregory J. FeistUniversity of California, Davis

    In the present article, I review and summarize two subdisciplines of the psychology ofscience, namely development and personality. In the first section concerning develop-mental psychology of science, I review three major developmental topics: 1) theliterature on the developmental and familial influences behind scientific interest andscientific talent (e.g., birth-order and theory acceptance, immigrant status and scientifictalent); 2) gender and scientific interest and talent; and lastly, 3) age and scientificinterest and productivity. In the second section concerning personality psychology ofscience, I organize the review around four major topics: 1) which traits make scientificinterest in general more likely; 2) which traits make interest in specific domains ofscience more likely (especially social and physical science); 3) which traits makedifferent theoretical orientations more likely; and finally, 4) which traits make scientificachievement and creativity more likely. From the empirical evidence reviewed, it isquite clear that developmental and personality factors impact directly and indirectlyscientific thought, interest, and achievement.

    Keywords: psychology of science, development, personality, mathematics, talent

    To think of a scientist who appears full-blown as a scientist without a developmentalpath behind him or is to think the unimaginable.Likewise, imagining a scientist without aunique style of behaving and thinking is nearlyimpossible. Scientific interest and achievementhave fascinating and complex developmentalpaths and are more likely to come from peoplewith particular kinds of personalities and traitsthan with other kinds of personalities. In thispaper, I provide an overview and summary ofthe current empirical literature on two subdisci-plines in the psychology of science, namelydevelopment and personality psychologies ofscience.1

    Developmental Psychology of Science

    Developmental psychology of science is oneof the most vibrant and active disciplines in thepsychology of science. For example, the studyand theorizing of cognitive development have

    many important implications and applicationsto a well-formed psychology of science. JeanPiaget, for instance, was a key figure in inves-tigating and conceptualizing how cognitive pro-cesses develop, change, and maintain over thelifespan (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Piaget, 1952,1972). As important of a figure as Piaget hasbeen to the field of cognitive development, therehave been important developments since Piaget,some of which are consistent with Piagets workand some of which are not. In this section, Ireview three major topics in the field of devel-opmental psychology of science: birth-orderand theory acceptance, gender and developmentof scientific interest, and developmental paths toscientific eminence (i.e., age and scientific in-terest and productivity).

    How do talented children become scientistsof the first order? Family environments, whichcan either facilitate or hinder development of

    1 For sake of space, one developmental topic I leave foranother publication is the evidence for and theory on howchildren use first principles in distinct domains of thoughtand can be viewed very much as implicit (folk) psycholo-gists, physicists, biologists, and mathematicians (see Feist,2006; Feist & Gorman, 1998; Klahr, 2000; Zimmerman,2000).

    Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Gregory J. Feist, Department of Psychology, SanJose State University, San Jose, CA 95192.

    Review of General Psychology Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association2006, Vol. 10, No. 2, 163182 1089-2680/06/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.10.2.163


  • scientific interest and talent, clearly play animportant role in shaping and guiding such in-terest and talent. There are numerous influencesfrom the early home environment that can havethese effects, but the four that I review arebirth-order and theory acceptance, immigrant-status, gender, and age and productivity.

    Birth-Order and Theory Acceptance

    In his book Born to Rebel, Frank Sulloway(1996) makes a persuasive case that birth-orderis a fundamental influence on an individualsdisposition to accept or reject authority, whetherit be familial, educational, political, social, orscientific. The fundamental finding, one that heputs in the context of evolutionary theory ofsibling rivalry and competition for resources, isthat firstborns are disposed toward accepting thepower structure they are born into, because theyare the oldest, strongest, and most identifiedwith the authority of their parents. Due to theirtemporary only-born status, they once garneredall the parental resources of attention and care,so when siblings come they are then thrust intopositions of responsibility and power. Laterbornchildren, on the other hand, are inherently dis-posed toward questioning and challenging theinnate power structure of the family, given theirbuilt-in inferior status within the family.

    What makes Sulloways argument persuasiveis his extensive historical documentation andsystematic testing of the basic hypothesis thatfirstborn individuals are more likely to acceptintellectually and politically conservative theo-ries and/or revolutions, whereas laterborn indi-viduals are more likely to support liberal theo-ries and/or revolutions. From the perspective ofthe psychology of science, most relevant is Sul-loways detailed analysis of revolutionary the-ory acceptance in the history of science, mostlyfocusing on Charles Darwins theory of evolu-tion by natural selection, but also on Coperni-cuss heliocentric theory as well as dozens ofother radical, technical, or conservative theoriesin the history of science. To give but a fewexamples of many: laterborns were 4.6 timesmore likely than firstborns to accept Darwinstheory of natural selection in the sixteen yearsafter it was first published than firstborns. Theywere also almost ten times as likely to acceptevolutionary theory prior to Darwin and morethan five times as likely to accept Copernicus

    sun-centered theory. On the other hand, first-borns were more likely than laterborns to en-dorse and support conservative scientific theo-ries, such as vitalism or eugenics. Perhaps aneven more telling finding is the fact that cre-ative-revolutionary thinkers themselves, at leastin the ideological revolutions of Copernicus andDarwin, are more likely to be laterborns thanfirstborns. No such effect held for technicalrevolutions (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Quantumtheory), or conservative theories (e.g., vitalism,idealist taxonomy, or eugenics).

    Immigrant Status and Scientific Interestand Talent

    One of the more interesting findings predict-ing scientific interest and talent has been immi-grant status, specifically being from a familythat is within two generations of immigrating tothe U.S. A disproportionate number of sciencemajors, scientists, and elite scientists had atleast one parent who was new to this country.By disproportionate I mean upwards of 40%when only about 12% of the U.S. population in2005 is first generation (foreign-born) Ameri-can (Berger, 1994; Camarota, 2005; Feist, inpress; Helson & Crutchfield, 1970; Portes &Rumbaut, 2001; Simonton, 1988a). For in-stance, in a study of elite scientists, Feist (inpress) recently reported that 20 out of 55 (36%)Westinghouse Science Fair finalists had a fatherand 22 out of 55 (40%) had a mother either bornelsewhere or were first generation Americans.The Westinghouse competition, as it wasknown until 1998 (now it is the Intel competi-tion), is the oldest and most prestigious sciencecompetition for high school students. Similarly,in a sample of members of the National Acad-emy of Sciences, 28 of 85 (33%) had fathersand 29 (34%) had mothers who were immi-grants or first generation Americans (Feist, inpress). Membership in the National Academyranks second only to the Nobel Prize in prestige(Cole & Cole, 1973; Feist, 1997). What makesthese figures all the more remarkable is that, ingeneral, the foreign-born population in the poorer and less-well educated than the nativepopulation (Camarota, 2005). One inference,therefore, is that a particular subset of immi-grants or immigrant children appears to usemath, science, and technology careers as a wayout of poverty.

    164 FEIST

  • Families who recently come to the shores ofthe U.S. may well foster a particular set ofvalues that encourages and maybe even de-mands high level achievement, whether it be inscience, medicine, or business. As suggested byclassic work in the sociology of science, aninteresting speculation on this phenomenon isthat science may be more meritocratic than mostother career paths and therefore talent andachievement in and of itself is more likely to berecognized and rewarded (see Cole & Cole,1973; Merton, 1973). A significant scientificfinding is perhaps more likely to be evaluatedon its own merits than novel business or polit-ical ideas. Immigrant families may realize this,and, given that fluency in the native languagemay not be as critical as it is in other careers,parents may therefore encourage their childrento go into math, science, or engineering careers.

    Simonton (1988b) offers another possible ex-planation: Individuals raised in one culture, butliving in another are blessed with a heteroge-neous array of mental elements, permittingcombinatory variations unavailable to thosewho reside solely in on cultural world (p. 126).Having been an exchange student in high schoolmyself, I can personally attest to the power ofsimultaneously having two cultural lensesthrough which to compare experiences. By be-ing exposed to a different way of doing thingsand a different way of thinking, ones ownimplicit assumptions are more obvious and onetakes less for granted what one believes, that is,without reflection.

    And reflection and explicit thought is, as thedevelopmental psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1992) has made clear, a fundamentalfeature of cognitive development. With devel-opment, thinking becomes more and more ex-plicit and therefore more flexible and manipu-latable. Moreover, this is precisely what meta-cognition isbeing aware of and being able tothink about ones thinking (Flavell, 1979; Sper-ber, 1994; Sternberg, 1985). Highly intelligentand gifted students do tend to have higher meta-cognitive skills than less intelligent and giftedstudents (Chan, 1996; Schwanenflugel, Stevens,& Carr, 1997; Shore & Dover, 1987). And yetmetacognition can be learned. A significantbody of literature now exists demonstrating theeffectiveness of teaching metacognitive skills inhelping students to better understand mathemat-ical and scientific concepts and, therefore, to

    think more scientifically (Despete, Roeyers, &Buysse, 2001; Georghiades, 2000; Glynn &Muth, 1994; White & Frederiksen, 1998).

    Scientific reasoning and hypothesis testingrequire just such a distancing between onesthoughts and the evidence for them. Kuhn andher colleagues have argued that the coordina-tion of theory and evidence is the sine qua nonof scientific reasoning (Kuhn, 1989, 1993;Kuhn & Pearsall, 2000; Kuhn, Amstel,OLoughlin, 1988): Accordingly, the develop-ment in scientific thinking believed to occuracross the childhood and adolescent years mightbe characterized as the achievement of increas-ing cognitive control over the coordination oftheory and evidence. This achievement, note, ismetacognitive in nature because it entails men-tal operations on entities that are themselvesmental operations (Kuhn & Pearsall, 2000, p.115).

    In short, being first or second generation canfor some make quite clear what their assump-tions are and, by so doing, make reflective andmetacognitive thinking more likely. These cog-nitive abilities, in turn, facilitate scientific inter-est and reasoning. So by being bicultural, aperson grows up with quite a cognitive advan-tage, one that in the end makes him or her morelikely than others to be interested in and havetalent for science.

    Gender and Development of ScientificInterest

    One of the more entrenched influences on thedevelopment of scientific interest appears to begender. As Evelyn Fox Keller (1985), amongothers, has pointed out, the history of science isreplete with associations, both implicit and ex-plicit, between science and men; male scientistshistorically have tried to tame or control thefeminine Mother Nature (Fox Keller, 1985;cf. Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002).

    There is empirical evidence that supportssome gender differences in interest in science ormath, whether it comes in the form of explicitattitudes (Eccles, 1987; Hyde, Fennema, Ryan,Frost, & Hopp, 1990), implicit attitudes (Noseket al., 2002), performance on aptitude tests(Benbow & Stanley, 1983; Benbow & Lubinski,1993; Benbow, Lubinski, Shea, & Eftekhari-Sanjani, 2000; Geary, 1998; Halpern, 2000) oractual graduation and career data (Cole, 1987;


  • Cole & Zuckerman, 1987; Farmer, Wardrop, &Rotella, 1999; Jacobwitz, 1983; National Sci-ence Foundation [NSF], 1999; OBrien, Mar-tinez-Pons, Kopala, 1999; Reis & Park, 2001;Subotnik, Duschl, & Selmon, 1993). The gen-eral conclusion from this body of research isthat men are more likely than women to viewscience positively and be more interested inscience and math as a career. This is true whenboth men and women view themselves as thescience type, but even more so when they donot (Feist, Paletz, and Weitzer, 2005). More-over, although there is no overall gender differ-ence in intelligence, there does appear to besome systematic differences in the mathemati-cal domain (males being both higher and lowerthan females) and in the verbal domain (femalesbeing higher; Benbow & Stanley, 1983; Geary,1998; Halpern, 2000; Kimura, 1999; Stumpf &Stanley, 2002).

    There are, however, at least two importantqualifications to these generalizations. First,gender differences are less apparent in child-hood and adolescence than adulthood, whichhas been referred to as an inverted funneleffect; second, gender differences are less ap-parent in the social sciences than in the physicalsciences, with biological sciences being in themiddle.

    Regarding the inverted funnel phenomenon,in terms of courses taken, the gender gap inscience is not evident at the high school orundergraduate level or in the social sciences.High school male and female students wereequally likely to take advanced math courses(trigonometry and calculus) and almost as likelyto take advanced science courses (biology,chemistry, and physics). In advanced sciencecourses, there were a slightly higher percentageof females taking biology and chemistry and aslighter higher percentage of males taking phys-ics. As students progress through their academiccareers, however, there is an increasing genderdisparity in interest in science and math (Long,2001; NSF, 199...


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