Monday, August 29, 2011

The Power of Expertise

The Power of Expertise

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Let’s say you’re working on your computer and it starts acting strangely. You get errors that don’t understand or it crashes for no apparent reason. If you aren’t sure what to do at first, where will you look for help? You might perform a web search for the symptoms to see if it’s a known problem and other people have solved it before you. You might run some diagnostic program or an antivirus scan because those are the tools you happen to have.

If you can’t fix it easily and you aren’t confident with computers you’ll probably start looking for help from another person at some point. Who? If it were me, I probably wouldn’t head down to the local college and find the top honors student or someone in the local Mensa chapter. I probably wouldn’t look for someone with great SAT scores or someone really good at Sudoku or even a master electrician. I’d look for someone with a lot of experience with computers and a proven track record fixing them. I’d look for an expert, and an expert specifically in that area, not just a smart person or an expert in a related area.

I stacked the deck a little bit with this question, because I picked a problem that is probably going to be technical in nature. That is, it seems like it will require some specialized knowledge to solve because it involves computers which are complicated devices that are a little mysterious to the average person and far less so for someone who has worked extensively with them.

It turns out, though, that my guess is pretty accurate for a wide range of fields, not just highly technical ones. Knowledge about the job turns out to be a far better predictor of performance than how high our IQ is or any other general disposition, not just in certain kinds of jobs but across a wide range from complex technical work to manual labor.[1] Just as I’d rather have a computer expert help me rather than my friend with an astronomical IQ, in most cases I’d prefer someone who has job experience rather than someone very smart but inexperienced. And I can point to research evidence that supports my preference.

Seeing Differently vs. Seeing More

Even in many areas where we would tend to expect pure reasoning ability to play a large role, it turns out that on average experience tends to win out consistently over any more general ability or measurement we have come up with.

The research that inspired the modern study of expertise began with the game of chess. Think about chess for just a moment. Chess is an activity with a small number of relatively simple rules. Yes chess has the reputation for being a difficult game. But that’s not because chess is hard to play. Nearly anyone can learn the game. It’s because we soon discover that differences in individual ability are immense.

The difference between someone who plays chess for fun who doesn’t study the game seriously, and an average tournament player, is like night and day. It doesn’t seem like much of a competition most of the time. The difference between an average tournament player and a strong one is just as large, which is why there is a rating system.

Ratings allow people of similar ability to play relatively evenly, or to estimate handicaps as they do in golf. The difference between a strong player and a master is similarly imposing as is that between the master and a grandmaster, and between the average grandmaster and a world champion.

How can a game with a handful of simple rules end up with people playing at such astronomical differences in ability? This was the question that intrigued early researchers trying to figure out how people solve problems. The obvious answer is that the stronger players must be seeing more on the board. But what are they seeing differently?

When most of us look at the chess board we see a collection of pieces in different places that are allowed to move in particular ways. We know what we have to do to win; we have to trap the king. We also know some ways to accomplish that. For example we can capture the opponent’s pieces so we have a bigger army, and we can harass the opponent’s pieces so that they are forced into a less defensible position, allowing us to attack the king. Everyone who plays the game, even for fun, knows these things. Still most of us pretty much have to guess at how to get from some arbitrary position to that result.

If I move here, I’ll attack this piece, but how do I know that my opponent doesn’t have some better move in response that is even stronger? More insidiously, is that move by my opponent actually setting up a surprise for me later? If so, what are my options? These kinds of considerations quickly lead to the very intuitive notion that being better at chess is really about calculation, about being able to imagine a lot of different moves, and what might happen if we made them, and keeping track of all that imagining. The better player must be seeing more moves on the board, figuring out what the options are more accurately, and then predicting the outcome.

This is indeed how early chess software played the game well. It looked at the possible moves, looked at the possible responses to each move, evaluated the resulting positions, and chose the move that seemed to give the best outcome based on what the opponent was able to do. The trouble was that trying to do this more than a couple of moves ahead turned out to be a very demanding calculation. More demanding than even the most powerful computers could handle. Researchers were curious as to whether seeing more moves in their mind is really what good players were doing.

Maybe the human brain is really that much more powerful at calculation than we thought. Or maybe the brain is doing something else entirely?

In a pioneering study of chess players in the 1940’s[2] a Dutch psychologist found the surprising answer. I say his work was pioneering not just because it was early but because it led to entire fields of research based upon it and validating his basic findings. The most compelling and surprising findings:

...Weaker players examined the same number of moves as stronger players, and equally thoroughly (!)

...Stronger players could recognize an actual game position far better than weaker players.

...Stronger players were just as bad as weaker players at recognizing an arbitrary configuration of pieces.

This may not seem so earthshattering at first, but think about the implications. Experts at chess consistently beat weaker players, but without examining more moves and without examining the outcomes of those moves more thoroughly. They aren’t “looking ahead more” and they aren’t “reasoning better” and they aren’t even remembering more in general. They do remember more about chess in a sense but not because they have a better memory. And looking ahead is important, but not by keeping track of moves. Their ability is a result of their mind being better trained to remember chess configurations in particular and to use that knowledge quickly and efficiently to evaluate moves.

So what are chess experts seeing that the rest of us aren’t? They aren’t seeing more moves ahead, they are seeing the board in terms of chess configurations instead of seeing it in terms of individual pieces. Their mind has been trained to see meaningful configurations of pieces instead of individual moves. They are not seeing more per se, they are seeing differently. They are seeing in terms of larger and more meaningful groupings. Experts with extended experience acquire a larger number of more complex patterns and use these new patterns to store knowledge about which actions should be taken in similar situations.[3]

The result is profound. We have a game where a few simple rules results in an incalculably large number of possible sequences of moves. But we become good at this game of many, many moves not by thinking about more moves but by thinking in terms of larger patterns: patterns of pieces rather than movements by individual pieces.

Through practice, chess masters have trained their mind to recognize the unique meaningful patterns that apply to their game. Further, the ability to learn to recognize new patterns (along with a huge capacity to remember them) seems to be something we all possess, not just chess masters. It is a fundamental principle of learning, at least learning to be a chess expert.

Even more interesting, we don’t recognize this as knowledge, in the sense of things we recognize that we know. I know that I know some things. I know that I know all sorts of facts like the capital of some of the U.S. states and the number of sides in a triangle and Newton’s formula relating force and mass and acceleration. These sorts of things are considered explicit knowledge.[4]

Chess masters can’t write down most of the patterns they know, both because those patterns are so vast and because they use them without thinking about them. The patterns they learn become part of their chess intuition in a manner of speaking. A common technical term for this is tacit knowledge.[5] We use tacit knowledge in our thinking without realizing that we are using it. This is why it took focused research to discover what was going on in the minds of chess masters.

Tacit knowledge becomes part of our perception. Chess masters see the board differently; for example they often immediately see positions as good or bad without having to do the kind of analysis that the rest of us would have to rely upon.[6]

Tacit knowledge is also used automatically in our thinking. When chess masters guess at the best move in a given position, their guess is informed by their vast database of tacit knowledge, so it is very different from the guess made by a weaker player. Experts make better guesses in their area of expertise. This is what I mean by their “chess intuition” above.

Trained Intuition and Better Guesses

You might be wondering at this point why I’ve spent so much time talking about chess experts. Or you may have guessed the answer. The most interesting conclusions from the research on chess masters are by no means limited to chess masters. Very similar or consistent results have been obtained across a staggeringly wide variety of fields from physical pursuits like wrestling and ballet to intellectual subjects like calculus and philosophy to artistic activities like painting and violin playing, to a wide variety of everyday jobs, to oddball activities like picking the winners at the horse races.[7] Even among scientists, where the role of abstract reasoning is particularly central and the subject matter particularly challenging, productivity doesn’t seem to be predicted on the whole by supposed general ability measures such as IQ.[8]

The chess findings are a particularly useful rhetorical device here because chess seems like it should be so dependent on reasoning and analysis. It turns out that experts analyze chess positions with the help of a vast mental database of chess configurations that apply without any recognition that they know them. The resulting perception and memory of the board just seems natural to them as a result of practice. Examined closely, in spite of its natural appearance for some people, the effortlessness of deep expertise seems to be an extreme kind of skill acquisition[9] far more than an expression of talent.

Even if you interpret all of these findings from different fields very conservatively, collectively they still tell us something of tremendous importance about how we become good at things. We modify the way we perceive the activity. In effect, we train our intuition about the activity.

In all of these activities, researchers have found that time spent in the activity lets us acquire a new way of perceiving patterns in that activity that let us transcend the limits of our working memory and sequential reasoning capacity. That’s why expertise consistently outperforms IQ or working memory capacity or other general measures as a predictor of performance in virtually every activity that has been studied so far. And expertise is not just specialized knowledge or skills; it is also more importantly an accumulation of organized tacit knowledge that lets us make better guesses.

[1] (Hunter, 1986)

[2] (de Groot, 1965)

[3] This has been the most common interpretation of the chess research findings amongst expertise researchers, based on the influential theory of Chase and Simon. (Chase & Simon, 1973), (Simon & Chase, 1973)

[4] “Explicit knowledge,” basically just means things we know that can be easily identified and written down. The descriptor declarative is sometimes used as well, meaning that we can declare it.

[5] In contrast to “explicit knowledge,” this is often referred to as “tacit knowledge,” meaning things we know but we can’t easily express, especially things that support action. Tacit knowledge is usually assumed to be useful for doing things more than for taking part in our conscious reasoning processes. The descriptor procedural is sometimes also used for tacit knowledge because we think of it as involving procedures for doing things rather than declarations about things. For this reason, a common rule of thumb is that tacit knowledge refers to “know how” whereas explicit knowledge refers to “know that” (i.e. I know that grass is green). The casual rule of thumb is troublesome because we don’t really know how we do those things we call procedural, the usage of the word “know” in “know how” is very different than the word “know” in “know that.”

[6] Following the pioneering chess research, research into other areas reinforced the same finding: expert performance depends heavily on a large accumulated memory of patterns that give us a different “intuitive perceptual orientation” to tasks. “Experts can ‘see’ what challenges and opportunities a particular situation without affords.” (and without doing any analysis) (Perkins, 1995, p. 82)

[7] One of the leading and best known figures in the study of expertise is K. Anders Ericsson, whose research encompasses a particularly wide range of fields. An excellent and accessible overview of work in diverse areas of expertise research is Ericsson’s edited collection: The Road to Excellence (Ericsson, 1996).

[8] (Taylor, 1975)

[9] (Proctor & Dutta, 1995), (VanLehn, 1996)

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