The downsides of expertise

We have so far explored what expertise is, and how to attain it, and we have seen that expertise is undoubtedly a beneficial skill. In this post however, we will see that expertise also comes with some potential downsides. One of these disadvantages of expertise, highlighted by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, is called ‘creeping intuition bias‘. Writing in their paper titled The making of an expert, Ericsson and colleagues defined this as the tendency for predominantly older experts to ‘come to rely exclusively on their intuition‘. Whilst the intuition of experts is effective for routine tasks, the authors noted that this has a limited scope when faced with atypical or rare cases where deliberation is favoured. In such cases therefore, experts run the risk of arriving at wrong conclusions if they depend only on their expert skills.

Doctor. Thomas Quine on Flickr.

Another limitation of expertise is the risk of experts ignoring or underusing available information when they make their judgments, a hazard pointed out by James Shenteau in a paper titled Competence in experts: The role of task characteristics (published in the book Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes). This may also relate to the tendency of some experts to ignore guidelines, protocols, and other sources of information when they make decisions. Shenteau also emphasised the risk that experts may not recognise the limits of their domain-specific expertise, and this leads them to make wrong decisions when working outside their field of expertise.


In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli expanded on the downsides of expertise when he pointed to the risk of experts falling victim to the cognitive bias called deformation professionelle. Dobelli explained that this is the tendency for experts to make decisions by looking at problems solely from the view of their expertise. He illustrated this bias by referring to the popular aphorism – when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.


Other potential downside of expertise are explored in the book Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Experts, for example, have a higher susceptibility to confirmation bias than novices, tending to look only for evidence that confirms their initial impressions, and ignoring evidence to the contrary. Experts may also run the risk of miscallibrating their skills and assume that they are better at a task than they actually are. Finally, experts are also at risk of Goldovsky errors which are described by Joseph Hallinan in his book Why We Make Mistakes, as errors which experts are prone to making but which novices hardly make. This is because experts are more likely to overlook the kinds of minor details that novices are more likely to detect.

Studying homeopathy. Takemabibelot on Flickr.

We have now completed our review of expertise. In the next post, we will start our exploration of teamwork.

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