What is an Expert?

Selections from my upcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’:


From Chapter 3:

A 1991 study by the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler is frequently cited in support of what I’m calling the just-do-it principle, the principle, roughly put, that experts, when performing at their best, act intuitively, effortlessly and automatically, that they don’t think about what they are doing as they are doing it, but just do it. The study divided subjects, who were college students, into two groups.  In both groups, participants were asked to rank five brands of jam from best to worst, and in one of these groups, participants were additionally asked to explain their reasons for their rankings. The group whose sole task was to rank the jams ended up with fairly consistent judgments both among themselves and in comparison with expert food tasters as communicated in Consumer Reports. The rankings of the other group, however, went haywire, with subjects’ preferences neither in line with one another nor with the preferences of the experts. Why should this be? The researchers posit that when subjects explained their choices, they thought more about them. Thus, thinking, it is suggested, is detrimental to doing; or, as the journalist Malcolm Gladwell sums up this research, “[b]y making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots.”

The take-home message from Wilson and Schooler’s experiment, however, ought to be quite the opposite. Yes, it may very well be that when college students think about their jam choices, their ability to accurately identify the best jams declines.  However, the expert food-tasters, who were a panel of trained individuals, were able to both justify their choices and, arguably, make the best choices.  Indeed, the consumers’ report that that Wilson and Schooler rely on is filled with such justifications. Thus, the experiment does not support the idea that thinking is detrimental to occurrent expert performance. Indeed, assuming that the food experts made the best choices, we should conclude from the experiment that poor choices come not from thinking, but from not being trained how to think.

But what does it mean to be an expert?  (→ to Chapter 3 )

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