In his Opinion on page 48 of this issue, Peter Dobson of the University of Oxford asks why former Bell Labs researcher Jan Hendrik Schön falsified data. The answer, he believes (and many will agree), is the enormous pressure in the current scientific climate, particularly on young researchers, to publish. We are all too familiar with that pressure — the need for a good publication record on your resumé to get tenure, a new job, a promotion, or funding, as well as the demands of the institution on staff performance.

But according to psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, there is an evolved psychological mechanism that could also explain why male scientists behave in this way [J. Res. Personality (2003) 37, 257]. In essence, publishing papers is a way to attract a mate. Kanazawa’s study of the lives of 280 ‘successful’ scientists found that most (65%) had made their greatest scientific contribution by the age of 35. The majority of scientists (80%) had published their best work by their early 40s. The only way to stave off this decline is to avoid getting married and having children. According to Kanazawa’s analysis, the careers of unmarried scientists show a much less marked peak in productivity. A far larger proportion of unmarried scientists make their most significant scientific contribution in their 50s compared with their married counterparts.

Similar patterns are seen in other spheres, for instance among jazz musicians, authors, painters, and criminals. It is the similarity between the changes in criminal activity with age and expressions of genius in science, music, art, and literature, says Kanazawa, which gives a clue about the origin of this effect. Criminal activity among men is well known to accelerate after puberty, peak in late adolescence or early adulthood, and then decline with age. Marriage, and the arrival of children, significantly depresses the level of criminal activity. While this can be explained in terms of social control, Kanazawa argues that the drive to commit crime is related to competition for a mate, and that this drive tails off once one is found. Not only can this explain why scientific productivity declines with age, says Kanazawa, but also why men outnumber women so heavily in this discipline.

Interestingly, Kanazawa makes a distinction between ‘genius’ and ‘effort’, which unite in observable ‘productivity’. It is effort that is driven by competition, rather than genius. Genius does not necessarily decline with age, but effort seems to. Perhaps it just doesn’t seem so important anymore or maybe perspectives change with age and the advent of other responsibilities. While there are many generalities here, it is certainly intriguing to look at the scientific endeavor in this light. And perhaps it helps understand others’ behavior better.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00901-5