Good and bad role models

Shutterstock.com/ NiglayNik

We all know that having role models in life is important. Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball forever and many of the stars of the game had his poster in their bedroom growing up. He was the idol they held high and the person they wanted to emulate. If he hadn’t been there they would never have known what great heights could have been achieved. Of course, we all know that there are negative role models as well. While having a picture of Jordan on your wall may help motivate you to work harder at sports, having a picture of gang members, murderers or other lowlifes on your wall does not set the right example. Yet new research has now suggested that even in the realm of positive role models there are good and bad ones. 


Let’s forget for a second the kids who have posters of Michael Jordan or some gangster rappers on their wall. Let’s stick to the scientific community. If there was one child who had posters of Thomas Edison on his wall and one child with posters of Albert Einstein on his wall. If everything else was equal in their life, who would do better? A new study appears to suggest that Edison is a better role model.

The theory is that although people are inspired by someone like Einstein, they are also intimidated. While Einstein may get someone interested in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) they struggle to stay in that space. This is because once things get tough they look inward and decide that they lack the genius that Albert Einstein had and are just not cut out for a career in STEM. How many times have you heard people say they “just don’t have the brain for science”? Einstein had the brain for science and many people don’t. Thomas Edison arguably didn’t either. 

What Thomas Edison did have though was an incredible attitude. He worked incredibly hard on his projects. He famously failed 10,000 times before finding a way to make the light bulb work. To this, he said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. It is clear that if you have Edison as your idol, and you start to find that things are getting tough, you may try a little harder, you might not give up so easily. After all, Edison would never give up.

A number of studies have been run to test this theory. Two groups of students were told a story of someone’s upbringing. The same story was told but with one group it was attributed to Einstein and the other, attributed to Edison. Those who believed it was Einstein thought he overcame his struggles in life through his genius. Those who believed it was Edison decided he overcame his struggles in life through hard work. While that is an amazing result already, it was incredible to then see that those who read the false ‘Edison’ story were more motivated to try some math problems. 

The hard work story of Edison had paid off and those who read it believed it was worth a shot. Today in STEM there is a huge issue in getting people to complete degrees. It has one of the highest rates of dropout due to the level of difficulty in the courses. It is referred to as the leaking STEM pipeline. This is a huge concern for governments who invest millions in their STEM universities as they want the best and brightest minds of tomorrow. It now appears that by using proper motivators many more may be willing to stick it out.