Performing Science

New research investigates the emotional skills of outstanding scientists

What makes an excellent scientist? What qualities distinguish them from their peers? What strategies do they use to achieve and sustain success? These were the questions asked by CPS Research Associate Liliana Araújo and her collaborators Leandro Almeida and José Cruz (University of Minho, Portugal).

The team interviewed six highly productive, internationally renowned scientists in fields including molecular and cellular biology, physics, and medicine. They investigated how excellence, and the personal qualities that lead to it, is perceived in these research areas. The results revealed a complex network of personal characteristics, psychological processes, and task-specific psychological strategies, where emotions and motivation play a central role in negotiating the demands of their professions. The scientists experienced strong emotions including anxiety, pride, and hope in completing their work and used such strategies as flexible coping, emotion regulation, and goal setting to regulate their own and their teams’ emotional reactions. This was particularly important when dealing with rejection, setbacks, and managing teamwork and coordination. Passion, curiosity, perseverance, adaptive perfectionism, advanced communication skills, and a sense of social responsibility were seen as characteristics that led to success, while motivation was driven by a commitment to work and desire to contribute to knowledge and society. Crucially, the scientists acknowledged that success in science can be a painful process. One stated:

Those who do research know that, in the total of the experiments we do, 90 or 95% of the time we will fail. Therefore, only on 5 or 10% of the time things will work, and then we know we are on the right track and can move forward. Those 5% must be sufficient to motivate us to carry on.

Just as performing artists experience doubt, anxiety, and other emotional reactions to their work, this study unveiled similar experiences among those who perform scientific research. Performers across domains can benefit through understanding the role of emotions as facilitators of the cognitive and motivational processes leading to success and by learning how different specialisms deal with the challenges and opportunities inherent to their fields.

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Visit High Ability Studies to read the full paper.