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Senior Scholars’ High Achievements Rely on Strong Personality and Favourable Environment

Academic productivity has been found to peak at ages 58–78


In Brief

Situation: Research reveals that cognitive performance tends to decline with age.

In fact: Many people in their 60s, 70s, and older experience an increase in creative productivity despite their age. This is particularly true for scholars.

More Details

According to researchers of the Moscow City Pedagogical University (MSPU) and HSE University Vladimir Postavnev, Irina Postavneva, Vadim Peskov and Alexey Dvoinin, certain personality traits can help older scholars stay productive and creative for a long time. Having analysed data from interviews with prominent Russian scholars aged 65 to 94 who have made significant contributions to the humanities and engineering sciences and continue to have active academic careers, the authors conclude that the interviewees’ impressive intellectual and creative performance stems from a combination of certain personality traits and a favourable social environment. The study findings are published in Acta Biomedica Scientifica.

What Is It All About?

The impact of ageing on intellectual and creative performance is a trending research topic in psychology. Due to the recent dramatic increase in life expectancy, people in older age groups, including academics, artists, inventors and others, maintain their careers and creative pursuits for much longer.

In the academic world, the term 'productivity' is understood, among other things, as a fundamental characteristic of creative thinking. An example of creative thinking, according to the study authors, is an act of 'combining two seemingly unrelated ideas from different areas of research or practice'. Another meaning of productivity is 'exceptionally successful performance on academic objectives over a certain period'. The authors further note that creative productivity can also manifest in establishing a scholarly tradition or a new school of thought, as well as earning prestigious awards as signs of recognition from the academic community.

A study based on scientometric data suggests that the highest lifetime achievements for many scholars fall in the age bracket of 58 to 78.

However, both Russian and international researchers admit that precise criteria for defining creative performance have yet to be determined. Criteria such as 'popularity' or 'productivity' do not reflect the psychological aspects of creativity.

Scientists are not the only ones trying to uncover the secret to creativity and ways in which creative potential manifests throughout life. In his 1933 book Youth Restored, Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko explores the idea of creative longevity. He argues that a creative person can live a long and productive life if they are intelligent and engage in self-reflection and self-regulation. He also believes that early deaths and suicides of creative individuals may be due to overwork and lack of coping skills.

Russian psychologist Vladimir Druzhinin expressed a similar idea in psychological terms, stating that a heavy predominance of creativity over intellect could lead to a creative decline and a shorter active life.

The authors refer to other academic work that contributes to our understanding of creative longevity, such as the concept of a ‘life strategy’ described by psychologist Ksenia Abulkhanova-Slavskaya and a paper by Alexander Makhnach exploring the link between high vitality and the ability to stay creative and productive for longer.

The authors also highlight the growing interest in metacognition as the ability to manage one's thinking and behaviour and rationally allocate one’s resources for goal attainment. It is believed that metacognitive skills play a key role in the ability to retain high productivity into old age.

How Was It Studied?

In designing their empirical study, the authors were guided by Erich Fromm's theory of personality development. They explain that Fromm opposed the contemporary view of personality development as a process of reaching a certain degree of 'maturity' and 'wisdom', followed by a decline.

The researchers proceed from the idea of a multipeak acme in examining factors which may contribute to older scholars' high creative performance. The term 'acme' (meaning the highest point of achievement) gave its name to the discipline of acmeology, a branch of developmental psychology exploring the mechanisms that help people achieve their acme — the highest points in their career, professional achievement and expertise, etc. 'A multipeak acme model accommodates the possibility of experiencing multiple “rises” and “falls” of creativity, and an exponential acme model assumes that an individual's creative potential continues to evolve and manifest itself till the end of their life,' explain the authors.

Using the method of differential-acmeological analysis, the researchers examined a series of interviews conducted by Valeriya Mukhina, Doctor of Psychology, Professor, and Academician of the Russian Academy of Education, with senior scholars, including the founders and leaders of prominent scientific schools. All of them held the degrees or positions of Doctor of Science, professor, or RAS, RAMS or RAE academician, and continued active academic work at the time of the interviews.

Mukina's interviews, entitled 'Life Values and Life Paths', consisted of eleven questions about major events in the interviewees' biographies, as well as their values and beliefs. The authors of the current study analysed 16 interviews with scholars aged 65 to 94. Information on their peak achievements was retrieved from the scientometric databases of the Russian Science Citation Index and the Russian State Library.

What Was Found?

The study authors found that the key contributing factors in the respondents' peak achievements (or 'acmes') included both their personality traits and a favourable environment, such as a high social status, being part of a scientific school, and access to organisational and financial resources.

According to the researchers, senior scholars tend to experience several particularly productive periods–or 'microacmes'–throughout their academic careers. 'Peak achievements are typically spaced in time and fall in periods when personal and professional circumstances combine in the optimal way,' the authors note.

The study has identified the following personality traits and attitudes as helping scholars stay highly creative and productive far into old age:

 valuing the role of a mentor as a source of knowledge and guidance both in life and in professional development

 being open to new experiences

 high life satisfaction and low preference for a career in administration

 well-developed self-regulation, agency, and acceptance of responsibility for one's own life

 being guided by long-term strategic plans as well as current short-term plans

 high social engagement

 highly developed reflection and critical thinking skills supporting a reasonable perspective on one's own personality and performance and on social stereotypes and influences

 perceiving age-related physical limitations only as barriers to productive work but not as signs of decline

 prioritising the moral strength to continue working in pursuit of one's goals

 seeing self-actualisation as a continuous process of applying oneself to one's chosen cause and seeking personal improvement

Another aspect that the interviews revealed was a strong association between creative performance in old age and having been supported by family in one’s interests and aspirations in early formative years.

'During their studies and early professional career, these scholars had the opportunity to actively engage in research as part of a well-established scientific tradition. Those who have stayed highly creative and productive into old age also benefitted early on from mentors’ support and endorsement,' the authors add.

Why Should We Care?

Science is a profession often practiced into old age; indeed, for many scientists, senior years are the time of great achievements. Therefore, we all benefit from a better understanding of factors which help older scholars stay creative and productive, especially in the context of longer life expectancy and higher quality of life allowing today’s seniors to maintain an active career much longer.

Study authors:

Vladimir Postavnev, Head, Department of Psychology, Moscow City Pedagogical University

Irina Postavneva, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Moscow City Pedagogical University

Vadim Peskov, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Moscow City Pedagogical University

Alexey Dvoinin, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, HSE University

Author: Marina Selina, October 17, 2022