Kolja Sam Pluemer

Where expertise comes from (Ericsson & Charness, 1994)

Summary of the research paper 'Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition'. Argues that expert performance is influenced mostly by Deliberate Practice, not talent.


Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition is a paper trying to unearth the origin of expertise. I found it when writing this summary, and honestly, we are mostly here because it seems the work of Ericsson and Charness was quite fundamental in this whole field, and you know, know the basics. Thus, we are gonna read and shortly summarize some core ideas.

In nearly every field of human endeavor, the performance of the best practitioners is so outstanding, so superior even to the performance of other highly experienced individuals in the field, that most people believe a unique, qualitative attribute, commonly called innate talent, must be invoked to account for this highest level of performance.

The intro to the paper. I love it.

  • Psychologist often research average people to understand how the very best people got their skill. The authors point out that this approach can’t be more successful than trying to find out how fast humans can run by observing a random sample of the population trying to run fast. Good point in general!
  • Ericsson and Charness go quite in-depth on the history of literature about savants and observe an almost obsessive tendency of researchers and philosophers to explain skill solely by natural, innate talent.
  • They then explain how prodigies do in fact process through the same stages of learning than everyone else learning the skill in question (chess, music, whatever), just usually faster and at an earlier age - which is only possible in a stimulating environment created by the adults surrounding the ‘prodigy’.
  • Also, most child prodigies do not in fact become exceptional as adults (this is basically survivorship bias, we only remember those who do).
  • To complicate matters, ‘expert’ often means ‘socially perceived as an expert’, making exceptional skill very hard to measure in certain fields (for example with visual arts).
  • Going further, a lot of things that could be called ‘natural talent’ such as absolute pitch or reaction speed turn out to be of little relevance in the fields they are associated with (music and athletics in this case).
  • Instead, experts are usually good at specified basic skills: Expert chess players have average memory, but can remember chess board configurations very well. Music savants can detect only Western notes very well, and so on. This clearly points to training!
  • An aside: If you ask people to say out loud what they are thinking while they do something (because you want to understand how they are so good), their cognitive processes may change (Ericsson & Simon, 1993).
A hand painting on an easel

Learning to paint takes practice - for everyone

  • The fact that experts in a given field become more outstanding throughout history shows that available domain knowledge you can acquire in your field is a most important variable in how good you can be.
  • Apart from that, Deliberate Practice is key - and most people active in a sport mostly engage in what the authors call ‘playful interaction’.
  • A good form of Deliberate Practice: Getting material of someone doing whatever you want to learn very well (e.g. record of a Grandmaster level game) and then deconstruct how it was done.
  • Supporting this, difference in performance can often be predicted by years since the person started practicing (or hours practiced).
  • Experts structure their days around practice, while also stressing the important of sleep, rest and balance.
  • An often found structure is four blocks of one hour practice followed by a break.
  • Reaching expertise basically takes a lifetime, with peaks arriving rarely before adulthood, but mostly in the 20s, 30s or 40s.
  • An impressive level of performance can also be held for several decades into fairly old age.
  • The authors also point out that the part we actually care about in the end is eminence: Inventing stuff, winning gold medals, inventing a new art genre. Eminence is not the same as expertise, much rarer and way harder to study!
  • In summary, outstanding performance emerges from deliberate, continuous practice and intentional, guided effort, mediated by the available resources and knowledge.

Cool paper! It brought up way more facets than I expected. Food for thought. I am quite sure I am going to expand on some of these points in the future - see you then.

Thanks for reading! This post is part of my series of reading and summarizing papers, mostly relating to UX. I use a casual tone because that’s the most fun to me. That means my interpretation of a given paper may be off. Or incomplete. Or plain wrong. Always think for yourself, and for the love of God, don’t cite this in an academic context. Use the original article instead. Cheers!