A new study of winners of the Nobel Prize in economics suggests that there are two different life cycles of creativity, one that hits some people early in their career and another that tends to strike later in life.
Among laureates, for example, the creativity peak either appeared in their mid-20s or later in their mid-50s. And when this breakthrough occurred was tied to their creative style.
“Whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach,” said lead author Dr. Bruce Weinberg, professor of economics at Ohio State University.
Conceptual innovators tend to peak early in their careers before they become immersed in the already accepted theories of the field, said Weinberg. They think outside the box, challenging conventional wisdom and come up with new ideas suddenly.
Experimental innovators, on the other hand, who peak later, tend to gather knowledge throughout their careers and find groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding.
The new findings, published in a special issue of the journal De Economist, support previous studies showing similar patterns in the arts and other sciences.
“We believe what we found in this study isn’t limited to economics, but could apply to creativity more generally,” said Weinberg. “Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about.”
Weinberg conducted the study with Dr. David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago. They arranged the 31 laureates on a list from the most experimental to the most conceptual. This ranking was based on specific, objective characteristics of the laureates’ single most important work which was indicative of a conceptual or experimental approach.
For example, conceptual economists tend to use assumptions, proofs and equations and have a mathematical appendix or introduction to their papers. Experimental economists rely on direct inference from facts, so their papers tend to have more references to specific items, such as places, time periods and industries or commodities.
After classifying the laureates, the researchers determined the age at which each laureate made his most important contribution to economics and could be considered at his creative peak.
They did this through a convention of how academics rate the value and influence of a research paper. A paper is more influential in the field when other scientists cite the paper in their own work. So the more citations a paper accumulates, the more influential it is.
Weinberg and Galenson used two different methods to calculate at which age the laureates were cited most often and thus were at the height of their creativity.
The two methods found that conceptual laureates peaked at about either 29 or 25 years of age. Experimental laureates peaked when they were roughly twice as old — around 57 in one method or the mid-50s in the other.
Most other studies in this area look at differences in peak ages of creativity between disciplines, such as physics versus medical sciences. These studies generally find small variations across disciplines, with creativity peaking in the mid-30s to early 40s in most scientific fields.
“These studies attribute differences in creative peaks to the nature of the scientific fields themselves, not to the scientists doing the work,” Weinberg said. “Our research suggests than when you’re most creative is less a product of the scientific field that you’re in and is more about how you approach the work you do.”
Source: Ohio State University