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

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CHAPTER 3: What is an Expert?

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes possible to make in a very narrow field.

—Niels Bohr (______)
One can consider any skilled professional as a person who has had the motivation to practice one thing far more than most people could endure.

—Yarrow et al. (2009, p.588)

A study by the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler (1991) 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.31 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 more colorfully sums up this research, “[b]y making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots” (2005: p. 181).

But the take-home message from Wilson and Schooler’s experiment 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 consumer report that that Wilson and Schooler rely on is filled with such justifications (Consumer Reports 1985).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.

To be sure, the difference between the experts’ and the students’ initial rankings was not great; the overall correlation was .55, and the discrepancy turned on the students simply preferring the slightly sweeter jams. Moreover, although I am a firm believer in “the less sugar the better,” it must be admitted that the taste of jam is not something entirely objective. Thus, one might opine, “Who is to say that the students without thinking are not, after all, the best judges of jam?” This lack of objective ranking standards is one of the reasons why chess playing, which is the subject of chapter 11, is so highly studied in the expertise literature. Still, the conclusions drawn from this experiment—more so by journalists such as Gladwell than by Wilson and Schooler themselves—highlight what I see as a problem in some of the expertise literature, which is that the results of experiments performed on nonexperts are assumed to hold true of experts as well. It might be that thinking reduces the quality of preferences and decisions for ordinary college students, but I claim we overgeneralize when we assume that such a conclusion applies to experts. And, indeed, more recently Melcher and Schooler (2004) claim that the effects of thinking in action do appear to differ dramatically between experts, who have been given conceptual training in a domain (such as the jam-tasters employed by Consumer Reports), and nonexperts, who simply have perceptual experience in a domain without having gone through any conceptual training. For example, they found that even a modicum of conceptual training improved subjects’ abilities to recognize various kinds of mushrooms while explaining the reasons for their decisions in comparison to subjects with no training who similarly performing the visual recognition task while explaining their reasons for their decision. It may be that in our everyday lives, we develop useful habits and fall into patterns that tend to deteriorate when we reflect on them, but experts have conceptualized their skills, or so I claim, and this enables reflection and action to occur simultaneously.

As I understand Aristotle, this is his view as well. Aristotle believed that we must become morally upstanding individuals through habit; through practicing the right actions, such actions become second nature and we are able to perform them without thought and deliberation. However, if you want to become an expert at ethical behavior, according to Aristotle, you need to develop a theoretical understanding of morality. His work The Nicomachean Ethics is aimed at providing such an understanding, that is, providing a theoretical understanding of morality for those who have already developed the habit of acting ethically. Yes, Aristotle held that someone with expertise “does not deliberate’’ over his or her aim—a doctor does not deliberate over whether to cure—but he also held that experts deliberate over the means to achieve their desired end (NE III.3: 1112b13).

Similarly, although the expert in ethical behavior who has studied the Ethics will not deliberate over whether she should achieve virtue, she will deliberate over the means to arrive at it. Thus, although those who have merely developed the habit of acting ethically (or enjoying various jams, or driving well, or playing the piano) may not engage the self-reflective mind while doing their habitual action (and self-reflection may even be detrimental for such individuals), experts in ethical behavior (or any other endeavor) will engage their minds when performing domain-related actions, and will do so with without detriment.

But what does it mean to be an expert?

Answering this question is the main goal of this chapter. Why, for example, should the trained food-tasters count as experts, yet not the college students? College students eat jam on a fairly regular basis too—in fact, if memory serves, sometimes straight out of the jar. Why is it only after having developed a theoretical background that one should count as an expert in moral action? Aren’t we all experts at this? Should we define expertise in reference to some sort of societal standard, perhaps saying that experts are those who have become “professionals” in their field? Or should we rely on a test of ability, saying perhaps that, regardless of whether they are recognized as such, experts perform in a relatively superior manner? Or might there be an objective standard against which we should measure expertise? Can we define expertise as the attainment of a certain level of skill, such as what on the Fitts (1964) model of skill acquisition counts as the highest level of skill? Or should expertise be thought of as the accumulation of knowledge? Is having trained for a certain number of years a necessary component of being an expert? Or could an expert be born instead of made? Finally, should expertise be based on performance or ability, allowing for, say, someone with debilitating performance anxiety to still count as an expert? The truth of the just-do-it principle—since it is a principle about experts—depends in part on how we answer these questions.

There is a vast literature in the cognitive sciences on expertise, yet there is a considerable amount of disagreement as to what counts as an expert. Without a definition of what it means to be an expert, researchers can still conduct studies investigating what benefits and what hinders individuals with particular kinds of skill (regardless of whether we should identify such individuals as experts). For example, Wilson and Schooler’s experiment tells us something about college students, and this is informative and perhaps could be generalized to the lay population. However, the danger is that without a guiding definition of what is to count as an expert, conclusions formulated in terms of one notion of expertise might, without notice and without warrant, be applied to a very different conception of an expert. This might be behind what I see as the overgeneralization of the jam experiment; those who think that the conclusion is applicable to experts in the sense of trained individuals, may simply see the college students as experts themselves. I think, however, that that the differences between individuals such as college-student jam-tasters, and trained food critics, are significant enough that generalizations about how thinking affects action in the one might not apply to the other.

Applying conclusions from research on everyday ‘expert’ action to professional-level action also, I think, leads Dreyfus astray. Dreyfus applies his theory of expertise, which is arrived at in part by his phenomenological investigation into driving, to the actions of individuals who have trained intensively and studied for years. Indeed, in work with his brother, Stuart Dreyfus (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986), and funded by the United States Air Force, he generalizes from driving a car to piloting an airplane. As he puts it—though no doubt exaggerating for effect—“once Stuart had worked out the five stages [of expertise] using his driving skills as his example, we just changed car to plane and driver to pilot and wrote a report for the Air Force” (p. 32). Yet as a lay driver, Dreyfus’s position is similar to that of the college student tasting jam; he just does it, and does it fairly well. Or rather, in contrast to expert drivers, Dreyfus’s position is actually significantly worse: although the judgments of college students did not differ much from the judgments of the expert jam tasters, Dreyfus’s driving ability is presumably far worse than a professional race-car driver’s. In brief, it is the Indianapolis 500 driver, rather than the lay driver, whom I shall refer to as an expert.

By what criteria am I to draw the line between the lay driver and the Indianapolis 500 driver or, more generally, between the expert and the nonexpert? Is there anything I can say that will illuminate this distinction? No doubt if God were an analytic philosopher, there would be nontrivial necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as an expert, as well as for a wide number of other weighty concepts. Yet, as will become clear as we make our way through various attempts to define expertise, God is not an analytic philosopher. (Indeed, it seems likely that She is not a philosopher of any kind, else She would have never made the six day deadline.) However, my goal in this chapter is not to come up with the one true conception of expertise, if there is such a thing. And in fact, though I do eventually stipulate what I mean when I say that the idea that experts “just do it” is mistaken, I lead into this with various extant accounts of expertise, and show why they fail as necessary or sufficient conditions for expertise, as I would like to use the term.

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