P: Processing of relevant information

Post no.2 in a 2-part series on basic conditions for expertise

Are you or the potential expert performing detailed mental operations upon relevant data, beyond the mental operations which non-experts perform? Is this the sort of processing which would plausibly yield expertise in the relevant domain?


You want to invite a philosophy expert to speak at your conference.

Brad and Will encounter an argument. Brad, the analytical philosophy novice, assesses whether it feels intuitively true. Will, the analytical philosophy expert not only assesses whether the argument feels intuitively true, but also assesses its conceptual clarity and hidden premises.

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

Answer: Brad lacks a robust process; Will does not. Invite Will.

You want to learn how to model other people.

Steve and Hilary must convince Rochelle the French bureaucrat to expedite their visa process. Both Steve and Hilary note that Rochelle is wearing delightful chartreuse earrings. Steve, the people-modeling novice, runs the mental process of noting that Rochelle is a person, and that people generally respond well to friendliness. Hilary, the people-modeling expert, notes that Rochelle’s chartreuse earrings are the only flamboyant clothing items that anyone in the office is wearing. Based on a large sample size of processed experience now stored in her system one, she guesses that the chartreuse earrings could signify that Rochelle wants to distinguish herself from her fellow bureaucrats — to show that she is not just another bureaucrat. Based on this, Hilary makes a gamble to say things which shows that she appreciates Rochelle’s uniqueness — e.g., “You’re the friendliest-looking embassy employee I’ve ever met!”

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

Steve lacks a robust process; Hilary does not. Learn from Hilary.

You are a foundation program officer deciding who to give a grant to.

Martha and Leanne are both published neuroscientists who study the lateral geniculate nucleus. You have already read their grant proposals, and they seem to be of comparable quality. Even though you are not an expert in geniculate nuclei, let alone lateral ones, you must choose one person to give a grant to. Thus, you must decide who is the potentially more revolutionary scientist. Both Martha and Leanne seem to have broad knowledge of most published work on the topic. They appear to be equally intelligent. However, Leanne takes the novel approach of gem-mining dynamical models in physics and epidemiology that seem to describe similar phenomena in the lateral geniculate nucleus. She also spends a lot of time devising thought experiments and free-associating around tricky questions. These methods seem a bit unusual, but in your grant-making experience, you’ve found that — all else equal — scientists who use unusual methods tend to produce more innovative work.

Who do you think has the better marker of expertise? Why?

You bet on Leanne over Martha. In this case, both Martha and Leanne probably have robust processes. However, Martha lacks a process that yields revolutionary expertise; Leanne more likely does not. You probably made the right bet.

Ways of assessing

You can apply these to yourself or others.

I. Ask questions which will reveal the mental processes of experts, such as:

a. “Before you fix a computer, what’s your general diagnostic process like?” (For a computer repair specialist)

b. “The constructs of confidence and self-efficacy seem very similar. How do you tell the difference between them?” (For an expert in social psychology)

c. “How does the quality of Richard Dawkin’s work compare to that of other evolutionary biologists? Do you have any critiques?” (For an expert in evolutionary biology)

d. “Let’s say I want to stage a magic trick in an extremely crowded room. How would I do that? What about in a room with very loud music?” (For an expert party magician)

II. Find out whether they’ve been part of a job, program, or mentorship which would have equipped them with special mental processes.

Caveat: Many jobs, programs, and mentorships don’t cause expertise-gains, so look for jobs, programs, and mentorships with a good track record of producing talented people.

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