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Expertise and cognitive biases: 3 risks and what we can do

Expertise and cognitive biases: 3 risks and what to do about them

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Who wouldn’t want to be considered an expert in their field? It’s considered the benchmark of high achievement, but there is actually a dark side to achieving expert status.

What if the fear of losing this very status causes one to act in ways at odds with the expertise that got them there? Research has been examining this area more and more – and it turns out there are three potential downsides to being an expert…

What are the risks of expertise?

1. Experts tend to over-claim

A fascinating study recently explored the likeliness of experts over-claiming how much they actually know. To test this, they asked people who rated themselves as financial experts how much they knew about terms such as “pre-rated stocks”, “fixed-rate deduction” or “annualized credit”. The twist? None of these things actually exist.

As a result, in fear of admitting a lack of knowledge that could damage their reputation, those financial experts over-claimed. Unfortunately for them, this constitutes more than just a white lie. This short-term self-protecting strategy is likely to hinder their long-term learning and development, which will inevitably harm their expert status – not to mention the consequences if someone finds out they actually know nothing about a concept they claimed to master.

2. Expertise may lead to close-mindedness

Across a series of experiments, researchers found that, when people perceive themselves as experts, they are at risk to become more close-minded.

So, why might experts become less open to new ideas? We can see two possible reasons:

  • They suffer from a Sunk Cost Fallacy – This states that people are more likely to believe something if they have already invested time and effort into it. This means that, after dedicating years to their field of expertise, they won’t be as open to valid criticisms of it if it saves them from finding out they may have “wasted” time.
  • They suffer from a Confirmation Bias – This states that we are more likely to agree with a new idea if it is similar to idea we already agree with. Not doing so would mean admitting that an expert may have been wrong before – jeopardising the idea they have of their expertise.

Expert or not, there are plenty of biases that many of us suffer from. To learn more about them and how to overcome them, check out our blogs 9 Common Thinking Biases and 5 Common Thinking Biases in Education.

3. Experts’ reputations may lead to cheating

When you’re considered an expert, smart, and knowledgeable, it isn’t surprising that you’d want to keep that reputation. Some will protect it by any means necessary, making experts more likely to cheat.

This was the finding from a recent study that found that students who were told people thought of them as smart were more likely to cheat on an exam. Likewise, other studies have found that those who are praised for their expertise and intelligence were more likely to give up on difficult tasks, enjoy the tasks less, perform worse and lie about how well they had done. This has also been associated with lower self-esteem and higher levels of stress.

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How to guard against the cost of expertise

The above three areas highlight the dangers of faulty thinking amongst experts. However, there are two things that can help guard against this. The first we can do as a society, and the second is what the individual expert can do.

What society can do

As a collective, we need to be more careful of who we label as an expert, as we aren’t very good at it. This is due to a phenomenon known as the Outcome Bias: if the outcome of a decision is good, we tend to believe that the decision must have been good. Likewise, if the outcome is bad, we think that the decisions that led to it were bad. 

To illustrate this, researchers ran a study where they told participants about a doctor’s decision to do an operation which had an 8% chance of the patient dying. Some participants were told that the surgery was a success, whereas others were told that the patient had died. The participants were then asked to rate the doctor’s decision to do the surgery. Participants who were told the patient had died rated the decision worse than those who were told the patient survived, despite the decision being the exact same one in both scenarios.

This shows how people can interpret the same act as either a success or a failure, even when the outcome may have been down to chance, or luck, or a million other external factors. As a result, we may be poor at accurately judging who actually is an expert, and end up putting an unnecessary weight on someone who may just have been at the right place, at the right time.

What individual experts can do

To be considered an expert, someone would usually have acquired a deep level of knowledge and understanding in one particular area. Key to them gaining their expertise was their ability to be open to learning, improving their knowledge and working hard.

However, there is a danger that once this ‘expert status’ has been achieved, they stop doing the things that got them there in the first place. By not over-claiming, by keeping an open mind and being honest when they get things wrong, they give themselves the best chance of maintaining their expert status – and potentially inspiring the next generation of experts.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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