Research Highlights - May 2019

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A large proportion of scientists and entrepreneurs make their big breakthroughs in their 20s. But as we also know, many great inventors, scientists and businessmen produce their biggest innovations later in life. So, what does age have to do with creativity and imagination?

A new study of winners of the Nobel Prize in economics reveals two different life cycles of creativity: one that hits some people early in their careers and another that more often strikes later in life.

In this study, the early peak for Nobel laureates came in their mid-20s, while the later peak came for those in their mid-50s.

This research supports previous work by the authors that found similar patterns in the arts and other sciences.

Bruce Weinberg, lead author of the study says, “We believe what we found in this study isn’t limited to economics but could apply to creativity more generally. Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about.”

Weinberg did the study with David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and it was published in a special issue of the journal De Economist.

In the study, the Nobel Prize winners who did their most groundbreaking work early in their career tended to be “conceptual” innovators. This type of innovator “thinks outside the box,” challenging conventional wisdom and tends to come up with new ideas suddenly. Conceptual innovators tend to peak early in their careers, before they become immersed in the already accepted theories of the field.

But there is another kind of creativity, which is found among “experimental” innovators. These innovators accumulate knowledge through their careers and find groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding.

The long periods of trial and error required for important experimental innovations make them tend to occur late in a Nobel laureate’s career.

As Weinberg said, “Whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach.”

The researchers arranged the laureates on a list from the most...

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