Genius is a hard concept to pin down. That’s why we have to talk about it using metaphors, like “light-bulb moments” and “the fruit of seeds planted in youth.” Our metaphors are a bit wonky, but it turns out they imply a whole lot about the validity of genius ideas – and the gender of the person having them.

That’s what Cornell University researchers Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero just learned from three experiments. They manipulated acts of genius like Alan Turing’s creation of his Enigma machine and Hedy Lamarr’s discovery of spread spectrum radio waves to be either light bulb moments or the fruit of seeds of effort. The researchers distributed the randomized write-ups to participants and surveyed them about their perception of genius. The results, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, were surprising.

First, the researchers wrote two descriptions of Alan Turing’s creation of the code-breaking Enigma machine – one as a “light bulb” moment of sudden inspiration, and one as the “fruit” of effort over time. They randomly assigned those descriptions to 395 participants and asked them how that moment of genius defined Turing. The light-bulb metaphor led participants to think of Turing’s invention as exceptional. The seed metaphor did not:

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Credit: Social Psychological and Personality Science

“This effect emerged even though all participants read about the same idea,” the authors emphasize in the study. “The seed metaphor may rely more on existing beliefs about effort in order to frame an idea as exceptional, whereas the light bulb metaphor may be so frequently evoked and familiar that it exerts influence regardless of more stable beliefs about whether ideas originate from inspiration.” That means that the light bulb comparison made Turing’s invention seem unattainable for anyone except a genius --  especially normal, hard-working people (which, given that Turing actually created the Enigma machine through long, hard work, is problematic).

Next, the researchers assigned 393 participants general statements about what the average man or woman was best at. After calculating the survey, they found that “women were more likely than men to endorse women as superior idea creators,” especially if those female participants had positive exposure to the seed metaphor. Then they surveyed 426 participants about the creation of spread spectrum radio waves, manipulating the gender of the inventor (Hedy Lamarr vs George Antheil, both of whom created the technology) and the light bulb vs seed comparison. They found that people were less likely to consider the invention an act of genius if Lamarr had created it in a light bulb moment – yet, were more receptive to it being the fruit of a seed. Participants were more likely to consider Antheil a genius when the invention was described as a light-bulb moment.

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Credit: Social Psychological and Personality Science

Overall, the researchers found that “the seed metaphor is more compatible with and inclusive of women’s accomplishments… [and] possibly incongruent with the stereotype of male inventors.”  They posit that difference as a semantic one in the study: “Language connecting innovation to stereotypically feminine traits like nurturance may bring to mind pathways to success and genius that challenge typical understandings of genius as innate.”

That’s particularly troubling given how women view their own intelligence, according to the study authors. “Women in male-dominated fields are more likely to misinterpret their effort as a sign that they do not belong and, thus, benefit in particular from portrayals of effort as normal for success.”

Compared to common findings on genius, that’s a striking thought. “Although certain individuals may be widely accepted as geniuses, there cannot be a consensus on exactly who is, and is not, a genius,” explains Psychology Today. One thing we know for certain is that genius is more about analytical reasoning skills and pattern thinking than light-bulb moments. And genius isn’t limited to only one kind of intelligence, either, as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner told us:

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