How do we assess “importance” in our lives? An example from scientists’ research choices

This 2015 Virginia study found that scientists preferred research projects that had the potential to make:

“Deeper vs. broader contributions.

The scientists surveyed considered a hypothetical broader study, compared with an otherwise-comparable deeper study, to be riskier, a less-significant opportunity, and of lower potential importance.”

What were the underlying motivations for the subject scientists to become the Big Frogs in tiny puddles?

For example, if scientists recognized that there was an opportunity to positively influence a great number of human lives with a “broader” study, such as the hunger research proposed in Do the impacts of early experiences of hunger affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings today? why would they prefer a “deeper” study such as starving fruit flies?

The researchers said that “scientists’ personal dispositions” accounted for this finding. I agree with the researchers, but not for any of the specific reasons they stated.

The subjects’ “lower potential importance” judgments were the key, and bear closer examination. The study’s supplementary material showed that this consideration was made on a sliding scale in response to a question:

“Would you describe Project A (B) as potentially very important?”

The “lower potential importance” finding was an accumulation of each scientist’s personal judgment of a project described as:

“A broad project that spans several topical domains, including at least one that coincides with your area(s) of expertise and interest.

compared with:

“A focused and specialized project that fits your particular interests and leverages your deep expertise in a specific area.”

I assert that personal judgments of the hypothetical project’s “potentially very important” aspect are how each scientist predicted the project would make them feel important.

Given the vague project descriptions in the above paragraph, the judgments’ context was “important to me” rather than “important to science” or “important to society” or important to some other context.

A relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy that applies to the “lower potential importance” finding is: the need to feel important is a defense against feeling unimportant due to early experiences of neglect.

Using the principles referenced in the hunger post, the need to feel important is:

  1. A derivative need;
  2. A substitute for an unfulfilled need; and
  3. Caused by the impact of an early unmet need.

A corollary is that if a child didn’t have early experiences of neglect, and their early needs were met, the child wouldn’t develop derivative needs such as the need to feel important.

Is it possible that decades after childhood, people are motivated to act like the scientists who were the subjects of this study? Do we make career and personal choices based on whether or not the work and the people make us feel important?

See my Welcome page and Scientific evidence page for further elaborations of this topic. “Different personal propensities among scientists relate to deeper vs. broader knowledge contributions”


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