Psychologist Greg Feist is trying to find out what drives scientific curiosity, from ways of thinking to personality types
You are championing a new discipline: the psychology of science. What exactly is this?
It's the study of the thought and behaviour of scientists, but it also includes the implicit science done by non-scientists - so, for instance, children and infants who are thinking scientifically, trying to figure out the world and developing cognitive conceptual models of how the world works.
What areas interest you and what discoveries have you made in this field?
My area is personality. I look at the personality characteristics and qualities that distinguish scientists from non-scientists.
The personality characteristic that really stands out for predicting scientific interest is openness to experience: how willing and interested someone is to try new things, to explore, to break out of their habits. Open people get bored with routine. Another thing I've found is that social scientists tend to be higher in extroversion whereas physical scientists tend to be a bit more introverted.
I understand that certain people - Jewish people, for example - are more likely than average to become scientists. Why?
I was brought up Catholic and I married a Jewish woman. I spoke to my wife's rabbi and asked him this question. He said that in Judaism there is no hierarchy. No one person who has more access to the "truth" than anyone else. And there is a healthy tradition of debate. That way of critical thinking and debate is more congruent with the scientific attitude than Catholicism, say, which is based on dogma and hierarchy.
In the US, only 2 per cent of the population is Jewish, yet about 30 per cent of the members of the National Academy of Science and 30 per cent of the Nobel prize recipients are from a Jewish background. That's no coincidence.
What other areas of the psychology of science are ripe for research?
A couple of graduate students and I have started investigating if there is evidence that any kind of mental disorder is associated with scientific thought and behaviour. The general answer is no. In fact, most disorders seem to be screened out to a greater extent in the sciences than in the arts.
Have psychologists looked into the issue of how objective the scientific process really is?
Scientists are human. They're not perfectly objective and rational, but the scientific method tries to limit that as much as possible by having repeatable, observable, empirical methods to minimise the subjective element. The more we understand about the psychology of scientists the more we can mitigate the effect of cognitive bias.
How will this new discipline benefit science?
One of the things it will do is shed light on how and when people become interested in science. And why do some kids, who started out with an interest in science, then leave it? In the US it's a pretty big deal to discover what is lacking in our training and development of young scientists.