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Why even experts can fail to learn?

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

As technology advances, scientists and engineers alike face shorter ‘half-lives of knowledge’ i.e. the time it takes for their expertise to become obsolete. An ‘expert’, according to Philip Tetlock (an acknowledged expert himself on good judgement), is not a person who can’t remember last getting something wrong but the opposite. In fact, he considers what qualifies an ‘expert’ is an ability to quickly recall recent mistakes and provide very detailed analysis on why these occurred and how they can be prevented. Yet experienced staff, even expert-level, are prone to certain errors in judgement due to the following (amongst other) phenomena:

1. Difficulty in un-learning

To learn effectively, we must be capable of ‘un-learning’. Otherwise, reflexive pattern-recognition blocks acceptance of new information and ideas, especially those that conflict with our existing knowledge sets. London cabbies famously provided scientists with proof of neuro-plasticity. A certain brain region (the hippocampus) enlarged during the memorisation feat required to pass their daunting exams. Less celebrated, however, is the fact that when Canary Wharf was re-organised, the same drivers struggled to ‘re-route’ their mental maps and navigate the new terrain well, relative to bus drivers.

2. ‘Unconscious competence’ of certain key skills

Though a different cognitive process to ‘un-learning’, experts (like us all) tend to forget their knowledge and skills. In fact, the more experienced they become, the more likely they are to reach an ‘unconsciously competent’ state (Kolb). Here they no longer recognise the skills and sub-skills that underpin their expertise causing difficulty in new/novel situations. Tacit knowledge prevents the identification and adjustment of those discrete behaviours that are most needed to respond effectively. In this way, performance ultimately suffers unless knowledge is extrenalised regularly.

3. Over-confidence in what is already known

Our expectation is that experts externalise in sharing the fruits of their knowledge with us. However we should be wary if they so bountifully without expressing degrees of doubt. High confidence often accompanies ‘unconscious competence’ with a tendency for experts not to adjust to conditions of uncertainty. When information is emergent, they can fail to recalibrate their confidence level on foot of new inforamtion or to seek contradictory evidence.

Tetlock’s longitudinal studies on the forecasting accuracy of experts, for example, showed that the higher the degree of confidence, the more likely that expert opinion was subsequently revealed to be wrong and confidence misfounded. This is further compounded where the expert is, as many are, highly articulate. Then their extermalisation becomes a 'proxy' for good reasoning i.e. a rationalisation motivated ,pre to justify their original belief than illuminate the listener, yet he or she is convinced, regardless.

4. Stubbornness in the face of new evidence

Experts often rely on useful heuristics i.e. ‘rules of thumb’ or decision rules. Yet they may over-extend these inappropriately by over-looking unique variables in a given context. Even the noblest principle e.g., ‘do no harm’ is potentially dangerous if allowed to become dogma i.e. a belief that no harm can be done. While ‘wilful blindness’ is rare, untested assumptions combined with a deference to authority can have deadly implications. While we’re all keen to develop expertise, it can be a liability unless matched with active open-mindedness.

5. Meta-forgetfulness and the ‘illusion of expertise’

The Loyola Univ. of Chicago sheds light on why, as Tetlock found, experts tend to double-down on their wrong answers. It seems that experts are less open to seeking out contradictory opinions in an effort to protect their status. Ottati, calls this ‘earned dogmatism’ and there is also a Japanese word for its opposite – ‘shoshin’ which closely approximates with the ‘Beginners Mind’.

Sadly, experts can be prone to a general over-confidence in assuming their intellectual prowess on one subject area translates easily into a superior understanding of others. Not only this but they are primed to over-estimate even their own domain-specific knowledge, conflating present levels of understanding with their peak level of attainment; termed ‘meta-forgetfulness’.

Given the increasingly specialised world of work (and education), let’s consider what those of you with deep knowledge and expertise can do to avoid the above :

1. Test yourself regularly on the fundamentals of what it is you already ‘know’ e.g., by working with novices who will ask you ‘obvious’ questions

2. When working with others, rotate between ’blue teams’ (pro-

‘status quo’) & ‘red teams’ (playing Devil’s Advocate) on the same point in order to explore it adequately from both sides.

3. Undergo even two hours of de-biassing training to hone your ability to spot red flags like ‘circular reasoning’ and other logical fallacies.

4. Invite people to disagree and even argue with you – surveys show 85% of managers are afraid of conflict but without it, we can’t think together well.

5. Read outside your own domain of expertise, regularly, and notice different thinking mindsets and reasoning styles to gain a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ on your own (termed ‘metacognition’).

6. Be open to admitting when you don’t know and being wrong as often as you are right – intellectual humility will assist you to adapt faster in the face of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) where ‘false positives’ are a fact of life and maybe even an indicator that you’re doing a good job.

7. Monitor your decision process – worry it, in fact, more than you do the decision outcomes as sometimes you will use the right information to arrive at the wrong outcome and vice versa. Decisiveness is not a trait but a skill to be learnt.

8. Calibrate your confidence with simple exercises e.g., gauging your certainty levels in answering general questions and monitoring the accuracy of your answers.

To this end, the free app below will help (and may even surprise) you in how quickly you learn to reduce your confidence level to consider your answers more carefully:

and why not sign up to one of our Critical Thinking courses? Contact me for a chat on 086 8300321 or for further details.


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