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Science is trying to understand the secrets of creative hot streaks

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In 2015, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman won the Academy Awards for best original screenplay, best director, and best motion picture

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In the search for the secrets of the elusive creative hot streak, science may have the answer. And to understand why great minds of periods of intense, creative brilliance, researchers have crunched a lot of data.

Take director Alejandro González Iñárritu. "Fear," he says, "is the condom of life." That’s as may be, but what about the inverse of fear – confidence? According to new research published in the journal Nature, ego is likely one of the factors that can contribute towards a dazzling creative hot streak.

A well-fed ego, it seems, may feed the creative process, spurring those receiving recognition to garner more gongs within a short period. Take the career of Iñárritu: in 2006, he became the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar for best director for his film Babel. In 2015, he won three Academy Awards and in 2016 he was again anointed best director, making him the third director to win back-to-back Academy Awards, and the first since 1950. So what about the science?

Now, researchers looking into the phenomenon argue that there is such a thing as creative hot streaks – and offer some explanations as to why they happen. A cluster of high impact works is common across the careers of successful individuals, popping up at random moments in their career-span with no associated spike in productivity. This fertile period tends to last about four or five years, the researchers found.

Led by Dashun Wang from the Kellogg School of Management, the team used datasets on the career histories of 3,480 individual artists, 6,233 film directors and 20,040 scientists, tracing the impacts of the artworks, films and papers they produced. Success was measured by different kinds of rating in each field, approximated by auction prices, IMDb ratings and citations garnered after 10 years of publication, respectively.

One of the more striking findings of the research is that these hot streaks are extremely prevalent no matter the kind of career. 91 per cent of artists, 82 per cent of film directors and 90 per cent of scientists went through at least one hot streak, with a burst of high-impact works occurring in sequence.

These careers, Wang says, were chosen because they could find large enough datasets. In terms of quantifying success numerically even for artworks, Wang says they took their lead from economist David Galenson, who writes about the lifespan of creativity, and argues that the best way to calculate a work’s value is to look at its sale price. This is obviously not a settled issue – people spend their lives thrashing out the appropriate criteria for determining success and value in aesthetic and ethical contexts – but suited the team’s data-crunching needs for this research.

Across financial markets, in sports and in gambling, there has long been discussion of the reasons for – and debate about the existence of – lucky runs. Behavioural psychologists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have considered the validity of talking about the ‘hot hand’ in basketball, and the effects on investor psychology of backing winners. Now, however, Wang and his team have addressed the life-cycle of creativity and the nature of strings of success to consider some of these questions within individual careers in the arts and sciences.

Winning begets winning, then, as the saying goes – but why? Wang offers a few explanations. One mechanism might be the perception of increased success fuelling further recognition (we are shallow beings, after all); another is the enhanced confidence that comes from doing well, the golden boy or girl spurred on by their kudos. Wang also believes there could be a collaboration effect: more people want to work with a successful person, boosting their future wins; there is also the possibility that this person’s lit upon a ‘hot topic’ or good idea which is then dealt with across different works. "None of these alone can account for the observations" seen, Wang says.

The fact there was no observable change in productivity during this period, the authors argue, suggests an "internal shift in individual creativity" when the hot streak occurs. On the other hand, a compelling rationale for the shift is external: glory begets glory. This builds on research into the Matthew effect, which holds that the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer. In fame, as in money, the idea is that success feeds off itself through things like name recognition. If a person already seems successful, they will be – revealing as much about the psychology of the group appraising the work as the person creating it.

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