Who Gets to Be an Inventor?

Survey shows people hold consistent stereotypes about inventors

by John VoiklisJena Barchas-LichtensteinNicole LaMarcaUduak Grace ThomasShaun Field
Jul 30, 2020

Knology explored the specific stereotypes that U.S. adults hold about inventors, including details about their projects, their workplaces, and their sociodemographic data. We recruited our sample through the social media and newsletter of one major broadcaster. We also explored whether different terms (e.g. inventor, innovator, or entrepreneur) spark different stereotypes.

Key Findings

We found some persistent stereotypes about inventors when we analyzed responses from a sample of NewsHour audiences. People had specific ideas about how inventors dress, their sociodemographic details, how they work, what their work environments look like, and how much they earn. One group of respondents imagined a team of inventors wearing lab coats; another group imagined an individual tinkering in a garage or basement.

Furthermore, most respondents thought of inventors largely in the context of the sciences, including medicine, engineering, and other technical fields. People also seemed to think that inventors are generally in the middle class, making north of $50,000 annually, with some respondents thinking inventors make much more. Interestingly, although one cluster of people thought of inventors as white Caucasian men working in isolation in a garage or basement, another cluster didn’t ascribe a specific race or ethnicity to the inventors they envisioned. Lastly, participants did not report different judgments about inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, and so on. This is a powerful outcome because groups of participants were not explicitly informed about the other possible phrases used to describe inventors.

Let’s Put It to Work

For news organizations: Overall, the data suggests that the exact stereotypes people hold likely depend on their unique life histories, including their media habits (the movies, books, and other resources they consume). As media producers – such as news organizations – create content, it is important for them to think about these stereotypes and their effects because audiences tend to rely on norms and stereotypes in making judgments about others (Kruglanski, et al., 2005). Moreover, Finson (2002) showed that exposure to real scientists appears to mitigate fiction-based stereotypes. Exposing audiences to real inventors might have the same effect.

Photo credit: Fachy Marin on Unsplash

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