The Pace of Change and Creative Performance: Specialist and Generalist Mathematicians at the Fall of the Soviet Union
52 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2017 Last revised: 21 Apr 2018
Date Written: April 1, 2018
Past research is divided on whether specialists or generalists have superior creative performance. While many have highlighted generalists’ advantage due to access to a wider set of knowledge components, others have underlined the benefits that specialists can derive from their deep expertise. We argue that this disagreement might be partly driven by the fact that the pace of change in a knowledge domain shapes the relative return from being a specialist or a generalist. Using the impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the performance of theoretical mathematicians as a natural experiment, we show that generalist scientists performed best when the pace of change was slower, but that specialists gained advantage when the pace of change increased. We discuss and test the roles of cognitive mechanisms and of competition for scarce resources. Overall, our results highlight important trade-offs associated with specialization for creative performance.
Keywords: Creativity, Knowledge Creation, Specialization and Diversification
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