Mental Model #20: Avoiding Thinking Like an Expert. Experts think about the big picture and sometimes can’t be bothered with small details. Small details, counterintuitively, are mostly paid attention to by novices, because they are absorbing new information and going slowly through a process. Thinking like an expert in a given field will probably mean that you make small mistakes because you engage in assumptive thinking and focus on overall effects and conception.
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Most of us are experts at something, whether it’s a big, broad subject like science or arts or something more specific like cooking, exercise, or embroidery. We feel very comfortable in our knowledge in these areas, and we should. Having in-depth understanding and fluency in a field is a pillar of self-confidence. This seems like a good thing.
You can never have too much knowledge about a given field. In fact, the more you learn, it’s likely that the less you feel that you know.
But is it possible that our confidence in understanding and knowledge in the “big picture” can result in our occasionally neglecting the small details? And can our expertise in a certain domain make us miss simple solutions outside our field of understanding?
A common saying tells us to avoid “missing the forest for the trees.” The meaning is that when you focus on the small details (trees), you tend to either lose focus or stop paying attention to the big picture (forest). This would be when you become far too invested in playing a video game (tree) when the original point of the video game was to spend time with your significant other and improve the relationship (forest).
And of course, the inverse also applies; you can also “miss the trees for the forest,” where you focus on the big picture to the detriment of glossing over smaller details. When we have expertise in a field, we tend to fall into this permutation because we take a look at something and it instantly generates a host of reactions and thoughts. If you were an expert musician and you looked at a piece of music, you aren’t necessarily going to be concerned with the placement of every note, the notations, or an errant sharp or flat. You’ll think about the overall melody, direction, feeling, phrasing, dynamics, and composition – thinking about the forest is an expert thought.
And it was in this exact context that this anti-mental model was conceived: avoid thinking like an expert (occasionally), because experts don’t always think about the little details. Don’t think like an expert. This is due to a psychological phenomenon called a Goldovsky error, and it is a type of small error that is easily spotted only by people who lack experience in a field. The more your expertise grows, the harder it becomes to spot those small errors. Experts skim and make assumptions about the basics because that’s how their world works; they don’t act as a spell-check.
Piano teacher Boris Goldovsky discovered a misprint in the sheet music of a Johannes Brahms piece that had been widely reproduced. More accurately, he didn’t discover it until a neophyte pupil of his played the written note, which was wrong, time after time and he was confused by the dissonant sound.
Goldovsky wondered why no one, from composers to publishers, pianists, and other musicians, had noticed the error. It seemed impossible to escape notice. He eventually conducted studies that showed that skilled musicians always missed the error (even when they knew there was an error somewhere in the piece) because they made assumptions about the note that was supposed to be there and how the note fit into the overall piece. In the end, the only person to discover it on their own was that one novice student.
Thinking like an expert is by no means a bad practice, as it’s what gives rise to new connections, advancements in thought, and overall learning. But for our purposes, it does create some rather large pitfalls that lead us to missing the trees for the forest: skimming, glossing over details, assumptions, unproven connections, and thinking about what something should or can be versus what it currently is.
In 1995 a movie called Braveheart was released to much acclaim – it eventually won the Oscar for Best Picture. Braveheart is about the Scottish fighter William Wallace, who led a fight against the Scottish king in the 13th and 14th centuries. For all of Braveheart’s technical brilliance, it contains one of the more notable gaffes in film history.
In one clip we see a massive army advancing toward a battle in slow motion, riding horses, hoisting weapons, generally looking ready to bust some skulls. But down in the lower-left corner of the screen there’s a white automobile. If you’ve seen Braveheart you probably missed this car, because the shot it’s in takes all of one second. You can verify this claim on YouTube.
Undoubtedly, everyone who made Braveheart – the director, the cinematographer, the script supervisor, pretty much everybody on the set – spent months on the project and probably had it uppermost in their minds the entire time. They had to get the sets and the costumes right, they had to choreograph the battle scenes so they looked exciting, they had to concentrate on the historical narrative, and so forth. More importantly, they were certainly experts. But somehow, everybody connected with Braveheart missed the fact that there was an SUV in the middle of a medieval battle.
This is another example of what we’re talking about: being so wrapped up and focused on the big picture that a minor but significant detail is completely overlooked.
To avoid thinking like an expert, separate your thinking into two modes: expert and novice. As you’ve learned, they tend to focus on completely different aspects of a given topic. To think like an expert, well, do what you would usually do. Thinking like a novice requires you to humble yourself and not skip steps.
If an experienced chef looks at a recipe, they usually don’t need to read the instructions. All they need is the list of ingredients; combined with their knowledge of how different kinds of dishes are prepared, they’ll instantly know what needs to be done. A novice would need to go through all the steps individually and slowly. And in that slow process, they would pick out details and even potential mistakes that the experts would miss otherwise because of their assumptive nature.
Yes, harping on every small detail, particularly when you’re confident about your field of expertise, can be annoying, trying, and frustrating. But it’s also dramatically effective in cutting down on mistakes and even major catastrophes.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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