The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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In thinking about how to explain expert action, the principle of inference to the best explanation does not typically lead psychologists to divine inspiration. Rather, in the psychology literature, the stand-in for divine inspiration is automaticity. For example, Fitts and Posner, in their (1967) urtext on the psychology of skilled performance, tell us that “if the attention of a[n expert] golfer is called to his muscle movements before an important putt, he may find it unusually difficult to attain his natural swing” (p.15), because expert performance is automatic or “autonomous,” meaning that it does not require control by the conscious mind. On their view, we develop expertise by passing through three phases. First, in what they dub “the cognitive phase”, one aims at understanding and intellectualizing the task and what it demands. During this phase of skill learning, they say, “it is usually necessary to attend to cues, events, and responses that later go unnoticed” (p. 12). Next, in what they call “the associative phase,” one acquires some mastery over the movement. And in the final, or “autonomous phase,” one moves automatically and without conscious focus on the movement, or Yarrow and colleagues (2009) put it, in their review article of research into neural processes that support high performance in sport, “highly practiced skills become automatic, so performance may actually be damaged by introspection, which is characteristic of an earlier, consciously-mediated stage” (p. 591).16

Note how well Fitts and Posner’s account of skill acquisition lines up with the story of the butcher. In the first stage, the butcher needs to think about where to draw his knife; three years later he develops a degree of mastery and the divisions become apparent to him; and in the final stage, the oxen are encountered with spirit, where the notion of spirit is opposed to conscious visual perception and deliberate action. Dreyfus, in work with his brother (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 2004), expresses a similar view, employing the term “awareness”: [t]he expert driver, he tells us, “shifts gears when appropriate with no awareness of his acts. On the off-ramp his foot simply lifts off the accelerator. What must be done, simply is done” (p. 253).

The ability to verbalize what you are thinking about is often taken as an indication that an action is not automatic, but rather is being guided by conscious thought. Thus, Fitts and Posner also castigate verbalization during performance: “verbalization,” they tell us, “may interfere with a highly developed skill,” which is intended to mean not merely that this is possible, but that their research indicates that this is so, for on their view, the best expert performance typically occurs without verbal thoughts about the action (p. 15). Going further, Flegal and Anderson (2008) suggest that even after the deed, explaining a skilled performance is counterproductive; turning an old motto on its head, they conclude that “those who teach, cannot do” (p. 931). Whether the focus is on the mechanics of the movement or something at a higher level, one gets the feeling, in reading the literature on this topic, that thinking, at least consciously, is something we’d be better off without.

Fitts and Posner also suggest that mere conscious awareness of the bodily movements involved in expert action can have deleterious consequences. And this attention does not seem necessarily expressible in words: expert dancers, they tell us, “ignore kinesthetic information and visual information about their movements,” and if an expert golfer thinks about, say, stabilizing her torso muscles during a swing, things may go awry (1967: p. 16). Such thoughts about stabilizing one’s torso muscles, and even more so, such awareness of kinesthetic and visual information about movements, might not be declarative, yet according to Fitts and Posner, they are deleterious nonetheless.

While Fitts and Posner’s view that skill at the highest level is automatic is based in a large part on “qualitative data” –that is, data from observations and interviews with experts—it has inspired numerous researchers to devise experimental tests of the theory. For example, in investigating the degree to which expert skill proceeds automatically, Robert Gray (2004), Sian Beilock et al. (2002, 2004), Ford, Hodges, and Williams (2005), and Leavitt (1979) have looked at what happens when expert athletes perform their skill while directing their attention either to a specific aspect of their movement or to an extraneous task. Such experiments are seen as supporting the just-do-it principle, since experts perform worse in the skill-focused condition than in the extraneous-task condition. Moreover, Beilock et al. (2004) and R. Gray (2004) found that the skill-focused condition produced worse results than having the experts perform as they usually would without an additional task (in a single-task condition).

The resulting view of skill acquisition is widely, though not universally, held among psychologists who work on expertise. Summing up the received view on this final stage of skill acquisition, Gabriele Wulf (2007) tells us, “there is little disagreement that once an individual has reached the autonomous stage, in which movements are usually controlled automatically, paying attention to skill execution is typically detrimental” (p. 6). In Wulf’s (2007) view, research on skill “clearly show[s] that if experienced individuals direct their attention to the details of skill execution, the result is almost certainly a decrement in performance” (p. 23). Sian Beilock and colleagues have a similar perspective on the psychology literature on skill: “Current theories of skill acquisition and automaticity suggest,” they tell us, “that well learned skill execution is ‘automated’— controlled by procedural knowledge that requires little on-line attention and control and operates mainly outside of working memory”17 (2002, p. 1211). Some of this research is not on what I would refer to as expert-level performance; however, the results are often seen to generalize. As Beilock and colleagues claim, “this pattern [of skill development] suggests that whereas novel or less practiced performance may demand extensive attentional resources for successful implementation, such explicit monitoring and control may not be necessary at high levels of skill execution” (ibid., p. 1212).

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