5 ways experts aren't

Noble Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, describing scientific habits of mind in his 1974 Caltech commencement address

Being an expert in your chosen field is no guarantee that you'll always get it right.

So you’re an expert? Congratulations. Now watch out. Being an expert – on positrons, mergers, Kandinsky, firefighting, whatever – typically brings higher pay, respect and status, but it also brings risks, according to studies of experts’ behaviour.

Learning expert Professor Michelene Chi, director of the Learning and Cognition Lab at Arizona State University, lists a number of ways that experts can screw up:

  1. Expertise is very much limited to what actually happens in your field. Chess masters do well at memorising positions from chess games but not much better than everyone else at memorising the positions of chess pieces placed at random.
  2. Experts tend to be overconfident. For instance, physics experts have been found to overestimate their comprehension of physics texts, relative to novices. (In a much smaller group of fields, such as weather forecasting, expertise makes people less confident about predictions.)
  3. Experts’ skills often rely on context. For instance, firefighters did poorly at predicting the spread of bushfire in the unusual situation where the wind and slope were opposing, rather than the same.
  4. Experts can be inflexible in the face of a change in the underlying rules of their activity. For instance, expert bridge players’ performance deteriorated more than that of novices when the game’s bidding procedure was changed.
  5. Experts sometimes tend to apply their expertise even when it’s not relevant. For instance, cardiologists presented with various types of medical cases tended to diagnose cardiology-related issues even when the patients actually had blood diseases or infectious diseases, rather than cardio problems. When you’re an expert hammerer, more things look like nails. 
  6. The latest problem for experts is raised by a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggesting that just feeling that you're an expert will typically make you more closed-minded. Researchers dubbed this “the earned dogmatism effect”, arguing that society gives experts a licence to be more dogmatic.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool." Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, describing the scientific habits of mind in his 1974 California Institute of Technology (CalTech) commencement address.

This article is from the March issue of INTHEBLACK.

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