Monday, March 19, 2007

Scientific American: The Expert Mind (experts are bred, not born)

Scientific American: The Expert Mind

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

According to this view, the proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years merely reflects the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage. Fischer made a sensation when he achieved the grandmaster title at age 15, in 1958; today's record-holder, Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine, earned it at 12 years, seven months.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.


Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance--for instance, keeping up with one's golf buddies or passing a driver's exam--most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind's box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

Meanwhile the standards denoting expertise grow ever more challenging. High school runners manage the four-minute mile; conservatory students play pieces once attempted only by virtuosi. Yet it is chess, again, that offers the most convincing comparison over time. John Nunn, a British mathematician who is also a grandmaster, recently used a computer to help him compare the errors committed in all the games in two international tournaments, one held in 1911, the other in 1993. The modern players played far more accurately. Nunn then examined all the games of one player in 1911 who scored in the middle of the pack and concluded that his rating today would be no better than 2100, hundreds of points below the grandmaster level--"and that was on a good day and with a following wind." The very best old-time masters were considerably stronger but still well below the level of today's leaders.

Then again, Capablanca and his contemporaries had neither computers nor game databases. They had to work things out for themselves, as did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and if they fall below today's masters in technique, they tower above them in creative power. The same comparison can be made between Newton and the typical newly minted Ph.D. in physics.

At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it. In 2002 Gobet conducted a study of British chess players ranging from amateurs to grandmasters and found no connection at all between their playing strengths and their visual-spatial abilities, as measured by shape-memory tests. Other researchers have found that the abilities of professional handicappers to predict the results of horse races did not correlate at all with their mathematical abilities.

Although nobody has yet been able to predict who will become a great expert in any field, a notable experiment has shown the possibility of deliberately creating one. László Polgár, an educator in Hungary, homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day, producing one international master and two grandmasters--the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. The youngest Polgár, 30-year-old Judit, is now ranked 14th in the world.

The Polgár experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after László Polgár published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

Furthermore, success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.


Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity. There is usually no way to tell, from a recital alone, whether a young violinist's extraordinary performance stems from innate ability or from years of Suzuki-style training. Capablanca, regarded to this day as the greatest "natural" chess player, boasted that he never studied the game. In fact, he flunked out of Columbia University in part because he spent so much time playing chess. His famously quick apprehension was a product of all his training, not a substitute for it.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts--on the order of $10 or $20--to those who score well. The early results have been promising. Instead of perpetually pondering the question, "Why can't Johnny read?" perhaps educators should ask, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?"

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