When experts are wrong

By Dan Peterson

In the same way that exceptions teach a lot about rules, the failures of experts can be as instructive about the nature of expertise as their successes. Here is a great segment from BBC Radio with Dan Gardner, the author of Future Babble, a new book about why experts who make predictions turn out to be so wrong so often. The book focuses on the fallibility of certain types of experts: economists, political experts, journalists and intelligence experts. It turns out that the average expert is only about as accurate as random chance, or, in the words of the author, “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Even further, it turns out that the fame of an expert and his/her ability to make predictions are actually inversely related. Fame kills the expertise of experts. The only group of experts who actually had predictive power were the ones who expressed more uncertainty, the ones who see the complexity of issues and acknowledge their own uncertainty.

It is interesting to think about how these thinking, predictive experts are different from experts who perform in-the-moment, like musicians, surgeons, or, of course, athletes. These experts certainly don’t perform worse than the man on the street, they perform like experts (nearly) all of the time. But why? It may be that they have less time to act, and so less time to spend engaging the thinking, reasoning parts of the brain. In fact, it has been demonstrated that expert athletes actually turn those conscious parts of the brain off when they perform, and that engaging these thinking areas of the brain, and paying attention to their expertise, actually screws them up, and makes them perform less like experts. From an earlier post on the psychology and neuroscience of choking:

Thinking and planning a movement is something that novices, who haven’t yet refined that skill, have to do in order to perform it more successfully. In fact, it has been observed that instructing skilled soccer and baseball players to consciously attend to the biomechanics of a simple task like dribbling a soccer ball or swinging a bat causes them to perform worse than when they perform a skill naturally. It has been theorized that high stakes cause athletes to overthink and become self-conscious about their movements, which in turn causes them to revert back to the rigid movement patterns of a less-experienced performer. This has been observed in disciplines from rock-climbers to weightlifters to piano players. The mind can get in the way of the body smoothly carrying out what it already knows how to do.

Still another way of describing what happens is through the lens of neuroscience and brain activity. Some of the best research around the brain activity patterns of experts has been done by Brad Hatfield at the University of Maryland. His research around expert marksmen (marksmen are easy to study with brain imaging equipment because their heads don’t move while they perform) has shown that their brains are, in fact, ‘quieter’ and more economical than the brains of novices. In effect, they tune everything else out so thoroughly that only the most essential brain areas associated with the task are turned on and working. Novices, on the other hand, exhibited not only more brain activity, but activity that suggested communication between areas of the brain associated with motor control and areas associated with conscious, cognitive thought and analysis. Several studies on athletes and clutch performance of skilled tasks have associated a certain type of quiet, focused brain state with successful performance. In effect, a quiet brain is an expert brain, and a quiet brain is a clutch brain, too.

It would be interesting to see if the gut reactions of these experts–if you gave them, say, 30 seconds to make a decision rather than days or weeks–if they would perform better. Would they perform more expertly if they were put in the position of an athlete?

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