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The Secret of Success Which Explains Why the Cleverest Country in Europe Doesn't Win Nobel Prizes

15/10/2014 12:27 BST | Updated 14/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The young Afghan Malala Yousafzai's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize last week gained worldwide attention, while John O'Keefe's Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine was a particular source of national pride in the UK.

But the focus on individuals disguises recurrent successes and failures of certain countries in the international race for Nobel Prizes.

A new psychology study poses the question - if some nations consistently achieve more Nobel Prizes, does that mean its citizens are smarter?

A larger national population should be associated with more chances of getting a Nobel prize, so the 'top of the charts' list of which countries do best in winning prizes needs to take into account population size. The international Nobel Prize league table is therefore compiled on a per capita basis; number of prizes gained per head of population.

It is notable that Europe does rather well, taking into account population size.

Third on the international league table of most Nobel prizes per head of population is Switzerland, followed by Austria, Denmark, Sweden. (First and second place belong to small countries, Saint Lucia and the Faroe Islands, which happened to gain prizes that catapult them to the top of the list due to their miniscule populations).

The UK is ranked number 7 in the world in terms of countries winning the prize per head of population.

Then comes Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Israel, followed then by the USA at 12th position worldwide.

This list should in some sense reflect the excellence of the educational system, yet given that fact, one European country is enigmatically missing from the upper end of this chart.

It does surprisingly badly in winning Nobel Prizes. Yet this country scores highest amongst European countries in various measures of educational attainment, suggesting it has one of the best school systems in the world.

For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); a triennial international survey evaluating education systems worldwide consistently places this country above all its European competitors.

Finland has a consistently excellent performance in the OECD's PISA international assessments. These test reading comprehension, science literacy and Math in 15-year-olds in up to 65 countries in Europe, North America, and Asia, drawing upon around 500,000 pupils.

Finland was ranked 1st in 2000, 2003, and 2006, and 3rd in 2009 -- beaten by Shanghai and South Korea. In 2012, a change in the way the tests are scored means weighting each subtest equally, put Finland in 7th place overall, making it the highest-ranked country outside Northeast Asia.

Many have speculated on reasons for Finland's high performance.

One popular theory is more genetic - that Finns have evolved differently from the rest of Europe due, perhaps, to a colder environment. An icy but predictable environment, which was the nature of Ice Age Europe, would select in favour of intelligence genes, because, so the theory goes, those who could plan for the future, mastering robust shelters and warm clothes, would be more likely to survive.

Higher intelligence would have been selected for, because harsher environments are more demanding of brain power than more congenial ones.

A new study just published entitled 'Solving the puzzle of why Finns have the highest IQ, but one of the lowest number of Nobel prizes in Europe', attempts to explain the Finnish enigma. In so doing the key finding appears to unlock an essential secret of success.

This surprising conclusion challenges the idea that doing well in school is the key to outstanding intellectual success later in life.

It turns out that if Nobel Prizes are a measure of ultra-mind performance, that in fact conventional educational performance may not be a good guide to the future.

The authors of this new study, Edward Dutton, Jan te Nijenhuis and Eka Roivainen, argue that Finland is the best performing European, or European-descent country, on PISA school academic testing because it has the highest IQ of any European country. Finns also score higher on character features of 'Conscientiousness' (reliable, thorough, hard-working) 'Agreeableness' (considerate, sympathetic, cooperative), compared with other Europeans.

These personal qualities predict success in school exams. 'Conscientiousness' more than intelligence predicts how many years of education you will consume, while Finns have the highest per capita enrolment in tertiary education across Europe.

However, the authors also argue that these factors might explain Finland's relative lack of Nobel prizes for science.

In terms of per capita Nobel Prizes worldwide, Finland is at 22nd place, much lower down the table than any of its European neighbours, including all comparable northern European countries.

The problem, according to this study published in the academic journal 'Intelligence', is that Finns, despite their very high average IQ, are poorly represented amongst Nobel Prize winners in science, in comparison to other European countries, because the Finnish population has a very low score, on other key personality features. Characteristics which now turn out to be key to the kind of success represented by winning a Nobel Prize - Finns score low on personality features of 'Psychoticism' (impulsive, aggressive, sensation-seeking) and 'Extraversion' (outgoing, talkative, energetic).

The authors, based at University of Oulu, Finland and the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, contend that 'Extraversion' predicts creativity, as extraverts are more prepared to confront authority and promote themselves.

A high level of 'Psychoticism' is inherent to genius because making discoveries, and promulgating them, are underpinned by making unusual connections, thinking outside of the conventional rules, and offending vested interests. A person who was scoring too high in 'Conscientiousness', would be too rule-following to entertain novel discoveries. Those with elevated levels of 'Agreeableness', might not pursue fresh ideas, for risk of causing offence.

The theory that Finns, with their high average intelligence, do relatively poorly in terms of Nobel Prizes due to low Psychoticism and Extraversion, would be bolstered if it were also the case with other countries.

Japan is 30th in the world in terms of per capita Nobel Prizes for science, despite having an average IQ which is much higher than the average European intelligence quotient. A reasonable explanation for their puzzlingly poor performance in Nobel Prizes, could be that the Japanese tend to score very high in 'Agreeableness' and 'Conscientiousness', yet low in 'Extraversion'.

The key secret of success for nations, as well as at the personal level, is how to balance creativity, assertiveness and rebelliousness, with necessary intelligence, conscientiousness and agreeableness.