Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Research byte: Beyond born vs made - A new look at expertise

Beyond Born versus Made: A New Look at Expertise


Why are some people so much more successful than other people in music, sports, games, business, and other complex domains? This question is the subject of one of psychology's oldest debates. Over 20 years ago, Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) proposed that individual differences in performance in domains such as these largely reflect accumulated amount of “deliberate practice.” More controversially, making exceptions only for height and body size, Ericsson et al. explicitly rejected any direct role for innate factors (“talent”) in the attainment of expert performance. This view has since become the dominant theoretical account of expertise and has filtered into the popular imagination through books such as Malcolm Gladwell's (2008) Outliers. Nevertheless, as we discuss in this chapter, evidence from recent research converges on the conclusion that this view is not defensible. Recent meta-analyses have demonstrated that although deliberate practice accounts for a sizeable proportion of the variance in performance in complex domains, it consistently leaves an even larger proportion of the variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors. In light of this evidence, we offer a “new look” at expertise that takes into account a wide range of factors.


  • Cognitive ability;
  • Deliberate practice;
  • Expert performance;
  • Expertise;
  • Genetics;
  • Individual differences;
  • Intelligence;
  • Skilled performance;
  • Talent

1. Introduction

No one can deny that some people are vastly more skilled than other people in certain domains. Consider that the winning time for the New York City Marathon in 2014—just under 2 h and 11 min—was more than 2 h better than the average finishing time (http://www.tcsnycmarathon.org/results). Or consider that Jonas von Essen, en route to winning the 2014 World Memory Championships, memorized 26 decks of cards in an hour (http://www.world-memory-statistics.com).
What are the origins of this striking variability in human expertise?1 Why are some people so much better at certain tasks than other people? One particularly influential theoretical account attempts to explain individual differences in expertise in terms of deliberate practice (e.g., Boot and Ericsson, 2013, Ericsson, 2007, Ericsson et al., 1993, Ericsson et al., 2005 and Keith and Ericsson, 2007). Here, we describe the mounting evidence that challenges this view. This evidence converges on the conclusion that deliberate practice is an important piece of the expertise puzzle, but not the only piece, or even necessarily the largest piece. In light of this evidence, we offer a “new look” at expertise that takes into account a wide range of factors, including those known to be substantially heritable.
The rest of the chapter is organized into the following sections. We describe the deliberate practice view (Section 2) and then review evidence that challenges it (Section 3). Then, we review evidence for factors other than deliberate practice that may also account for individual differences in expertise (Section 4). We then describe an integrative approach to research on expertise (Section 5). Finally, we summarize our major findings and comment on directions for future research (Section 6).

2. The Deliberate Practice View

The question of what explains individual differences in expertise is the topic of one of psychology's oldest debates. One view is that experts are “born.” This view holds that although training is necessary to become an expert, innate ability—talent—limits the ultimate level of performance that a person can achieve in a domain. Nearly 150 years ago, in his book Hereditary Genius, Francis Galton (1869) argued for this view based on his finding that eminence in domains such as music, science, literature, and art tends to run in families, going so far as to conclude that “social hindrances cannot impede men of high ability, from becoming eminent [and] social advantages are incompetent to give that status, to a man of moderate ability” (p. 41). The opposing view is that experts are “made.” This view argues that if talent exists at all, its effects are overshadowed by training. John Watson (1930), the founder of behaviorism, championed this view when he guaranteed that he could take any infant at random and train him to become “any type of specialist [he] might select...regardless of his talents” (p. 104).
The modern era of scientific research on expertise traces back to the 1940s and the research of the Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1946/1978). Himself an internationally competitive chess player, de Groot investigated the thought processes underlying chess expertise using a “choice-of-move” paradigm in which he gave chess players chess positions and instructed them to verbalize their thoughts as they considered what move to make. From analyses of their verbal reports, de Groot discovered that there was no association between skill level and the number of moves ahead a player thought in advance of the current move. Instead, he found evidence for a perceptual basis of chess expertise. As de Groot put it, the grandmaster “immediately ‘sees’ the core of the problem in the position” whereas the weaker player “finds it with difficulty—or misses it completely” (p. 320). de Groot attributed this ability to a “connoisseurship” (p. 321) that develops through years of experience playing the game.
Nearly 30 years later, de Groot's (1946/1978) work was the inspiration for Chase and Simon's (1973a) classic study of chess expertise, which marks the beginning of cognitive psychologists' interest in expertise. Testing three chess players—a master, an intermediate-level player, and a beginner—Chase and Simon found that there was a positive relationship between chess skill and memory for chess positions, but only when they were plausible game positions. When the positions were random arrangements of pieces, there was almost no effect of chess skill on memory. Based on these findings, Chase and Simon (1973b) concluded that although “there clearly must be a set of specific aptitudes...that together comprise a talent for chess, individual differences in such aptitudes are largely overshadowed by immense individual differences in chess experience. Hence, the overriding factor in chess skill is practice” (p. 279).
The experts-are-made view has held sway in the scientific literature ever since. Over 20 years ago, in a pivotal article, Ericsson et al. (1993) proposed that individual differences in performance in complex domains (music, chess, sports, etc.) largely reflect differences in the amount of time people have spent engaging in deliberate practice, which “includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance” (p. 368). In the first of two studies, Ericsson et al. recruited violinists from a Berlin music academy and asked them to estimate the amount of hours per week they had devoted to deliberate practice since taking up the violin. The “best” violinists had accumulated an average of over 10,000 h of deliberate practice by age 20, which was about 2500 h more than the average for the “good” violinists and about 5000 h more than the average for the least accomplished “teacher” group. In a second study, Ericsson et al. found that “expert” pianists, who were selected to be similar in skill level to the good violinists in the first study, had accumulated an average of over 10,000 h of deliberate practice by age 20, compared to only about 2000 h for “amateur” pianists (see Ericsson, 2006; for further discussion of these results).
Ericsson et al. (1993) concluded that “high levels of deliberate practice are necessary to attain expert level performance” (p. 392). More controversially, they added:
Our theoretical framework can also provide a sufficient account of the major facts about the nature and scarcity of exceptional performance. Our account does not depend on scarcity of innate ability (talent) and hence agrees better with the earlier reviewed findings of poor predictability of final performance by ability tests. We attribute the dramatic differences in performance between experts and amateurs-novices to similarly large differences in the recorded amounts of deliberate practice.
Ericsson et al., (1993, p. 392), emphasis added
Ericsson et al. further claimed that “individual differences in ultimate performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice” (p. 392), and stated:
We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
(p. 400)
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