Monday, August 29, 2011

The Limitations of Expertise

The Limitations of Expertise

Although it covers a very wide range of activities, the large body of expertise research takes place in areas where we can easily identify how good people are based on standards of performance within the field itself, and where, to put it bluntly, skill matters. What about performance in real world, where things are a lot messier, and the more skillful exponent doesn’t always come out on top?

This indeed turns out to be a very real issue. While having a certain amount of skill is always valuable, it isn’t always the case that being more skillful means that we perform even better. A little skill might be good, but more skill might not be better. How can this be true?

Consider these possibilities for why being more skillful might not make us perform better:

1. Extremes of Arousal: The general state of our nervous system in response to a situation can in turn affect the performance of our trained skills, although the reason for this is surprisingly poorly understood theoretically. Picture trying to drive a challenging obstacle course while very sleepy, anxious, or terrified. Extremes of arousal may plausibly affect expertise, and perhaps even negate large differences in expertise, although the effects would probably depend on some interaction of the type or activity and whether it was low or high arousal. And it turns out that the way we interpret the situation can be an important factor as well.

2. Transfer Failure: The situation at hand may resemble the situation we practiced for, but be different enough that our skills matter less. If I learn to drive a car and then manage to drive a truck, I’m transferring my skills. If I crash the truck because I can’t figure out how to operate the different controls properly or because the different response of vehicle confuses me, then we have transfer failure. My expertise doesn’t help me if it doesn’t transfer to the situation I’m in.

3. Domain Unpredictability: Some things seem to be intrinsically difficult to predict, so no amount of experience makes us better at predicting things in those domains. I don’t necessarily get better at predicting earthquakes by living through a few earthquakes, and I don’t necessarily get better at predicting slot machine payoffs by playing more, although I might learn other valuable lessons.

Despite the power of expertise across such a wide range of activities, it’s entirely possible that our performance may depend more on something other than expertise under some conditions. I’m going to examine these challenges to the power of expertise one at a time.

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