Wanna Win a Nobel Prize? Be Nice! (And Eat More Chocolate)

Proof that Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

Surprise! Researchers who hog credit on scientific papers are less likely to win a Nobel prize than those who give younger academics a bit of the spotlight… of course, it also helps if you eat more chocolate!

by Eric Barker • Barking Up the Wrong Tree


What’s it take to win a Nobel prize? How about “being nice”?
How do we know?
Researchers who hog the credit on scientific papers are less likely to win a Nobel prize. Those who give younger academics a bit of the spotlight are more likely to have a trip to Stockholm in their future.
Via The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

One striking finding was the beneficence of Nobel laureates, or as Zuckerman termed it, noblesse oblige. In general, when a scientific paper is published, the author who did the most is listed first.There are exceptions to this, and this can vary from field to field, but Zuckerman took it as a useful rule of thumb. What she found was that Nobel laureates are first authors of numerous publications early in their careers, but quickly begin to give their junior colleagues first authorship. And this happens far before they receive the Nobel Prize.

As one generous Nobel laureate in chemistry put it: “It helps a young man to be senior author, first author, and doesn’t detract from the credit that I get if my name is farther down the list.” On the other hand, those peers of Nobel laureates who were not as successful tried to maintain first authorship for themselves far more often, garnering more glory for themselves. By their forties, Nobel laureates are first authors on only 26 percent of their papers, as compared to their less accomplished contemporaries, who are first authors 56 percent of the time. Nicer people are indeed more creative, more successful, and even more likely to win Nobel prizes.

Of course, it also Helps to have a Trustworthy Face

Want a Nobel Peace Prize? You need a trustworthy face.
They gave people pictures of Nobel Peace Prize winners and American’s Most Wanted criminals. The Nobel Prize winners could often be guessed after seeing a picture for only 100 milliseconds:

Although trustworthiness judgments based on a stranger’s face occur rapidly (Willis & Todorov, 2006), their accuracy is unknown. We examined the accuracy of trustworthiness judgments of the faces of 2 groups differing in trustworthiness (Nobel Peace Prize recipients/humanitarians vs. America’s Most Wanted criminals). Participants viewed 34 faces each for 100 ms or 30 s and rated their trustworthiness. Subsequently, participants were informed about the nature of the 2 groups and estimated group membership for each face. Judgments formed with extremely brief exposure were similar in accuracy and confidence to those formed after a long exposure. However, initial judgments of untrustworthy (criminals’) faces were less accurate (M=48.8%) than were those of trustworthy faces (M=62.7%). Judgment accuracy was above chance for trustworthy targets only at Time 1 and slightly above chance for both target types at Time 2. Participants relied on perceived kindness and aggressiveness to inform their rapidly formed intuitive decisions. Thus, intuition plays a minor facilitative role in reading faces.

If all else Fails, Eat More Chocolate

So what if you’re a jerk with an untrustworthy mug but you still want to win a Nobel Prize?
I’d eat a lot of chocolate. I’m being serious.
Countries that eat more chocolate win more Nobels. Chocolate has been shown to increase smarts so there could be a connection. (Correlation, causation, whatever — it’s an excuse to eat chocolate, right?)
Via The New England Journal of Medicine:

There was a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, P<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries (Figure 1). When recalculated with the exclusion of Sweden, the correlation coefficient increased to 0.862. Switzerland was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption… since chocolate consumption has been documented to improve cognitive function, it seems most likely that in a dose-dependent way, chocolate intake provides the abundant fertile ground needed for the sprouting of Nobel laureates.

win a nobel prize

Would love to write more but I’m going to eat a Snickers bar while I study quantum mechanics.



Eric Barker is the guy behind the blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree  listed on blogrolls at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Read more on Eric’s post:  The research for and against “nice guys finish last.”  Turns out there’s one more area where being good pays off. Or read his Wired Magazine columns are here.