The objective of all professionals is to achieve expertise in their chosen fields of endeavour. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in a profession such as medicine where the price of incompetence is costly. The key features of expertise, as highlighted by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues in a paper titled The making of an expert, are that it leads to superior performance compared to that of peers, and it results in concrete, measurable, and replicable results. Derek J Koehler and colleagues expatiated on the nature of expertise in a chapter titled The calibration of expert judgment: heuristics and biases beyond the laboratory, published in the book Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment‘. They defined experts as people having a broad knowledge base and who are efficient at organising cues into larger “chunks“, and adept at accurately recognising patterns.
Beyond their proficiency in applying their ‘huge stock of relevant knowledge‘, Michael Eysenk and Mark Keane in the book Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook, 6th Edition, added that experts are also skilled at simplifying problems, and they do this by focussing on the important details and ignoring the less relevant ones. In this way, they explained, experts use their routine and adaptive skills to efficiently solve familiar and novel problems. A further notable feature of experts is that, unlike novices, they do not require too much ‘time, thought, data and attention‘ to solve problems. As Gerd Gigerenzer pointed out in his book Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making, these resources only hamper rather than help the judgement of experts.
Several other features mark out the expert performer from the novice. In his paper titled Competence in experts: The role of task characteristics in the book Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, James Shenteau listed some of the key characteristics of experts as:
- A sufficient knowledge of the domain
- Strong self-confidence
- Excellent communication skills
- The ability to adapt to new situations
- A clear sense of responsibility
- The cognitive skills necessary to make tough decisions
- Highly developed attention abilities
- A sense of what is relevant
- The ability to identify exceptions to rules
- The capability to work effectively under stress
- The ability to use appropriate decision strategies
- The use of dynamic feedback
- The reliance on decision aids
- The decomposing of complex decision problems
- The pre-thinking of solutions to tough situations
- The use of ‘more efficient approaches to thinking about problem-solving and decision-making‘
The ability to recognise patterns is a particularly significant factor in how experts solve problems, and the psychologist Gary Klein has explored this exhaustively in his book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. He argued that experts depend considerably on their ability to discern ‘patterns, anomalies and the bigger picture‘, and on their capacity to detect ‘opportunities and minor discriminating differences‘. Furthermore, he added, experts know ‘when the pattern is incomplete and also know when to look for more information‘. Equally important, Klein emphasised, is that experts ‘know their limits‘, and this is a point that he and Daniel Kahneman highlighted in their paper titled Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree. Klein and Kahneman, who usually see expertise from different perspectives, agreed on the fact that experts ‘appreciate the boundaries of their expertise’, and that they ‘know more knowledgeable experts exist’.
In the next post, we will look at the attainment of expertise