Is talent something you're born with or can practice really make you perfect? Experts on expertise -- who've studied the minds of experts in fields from sports to medicine -- have the answer. As this ScienCentral News video explains, they're applying it to life or death situations.
Thinking Like an Expert
In the Human Performance Laboratory at Florida State University's Center for Expert Performance Research, a nursing student is told to care for a simulated patient admitted for chest pain. The dummy patient's vital signs, as well as his voice, are controlled by a nursing professor behind a two-way mirror. When the "patient" suddenly can't breathe, the student gets to experience a novice nurse's nightmare -- a life-or-death situation with no one to take over and rescue the patient, or coach her what to do.
Putting both experts and novices through critical scenarios like this, cognitive psychology researchers K. Anders Ericsson and Paul Ward don't just observe the differences in subjects' performance. They also use interviewing techniques they've developed to understand the differences in their minds.
"We’re looking at how people think and how that thinking affects how they perform," says Ward.
Before a novice or expert participates in the simulation, Ward prepares them for how they will be debriefed afterward. He teaches them how to give a "think-aloud" report of their performance, in which they simply recount what they were thinking throughout the scenario without trying to evaluate or explain it.
"That’s when we uncover the expert superiority: their ability to perceive more information, and also, after the fact, remember more of the thought processes than the novices," says Ericsson.
"Some key differences would be the way in which they pick up information from the environment," Ward says, "and the way in which they comprehend that information such that they could then use it to good effect."
In fact, even in sports, where we tend to think that successful athletes have not only natural abilities, but also superior physical skills, Ward's research on top soccer players has shown that mental processes are a much better predictor of performance than physical attributes. Elite players not only make better decisions than less-skilled players, they do it by more accurately perceiving and analyzing cues around them and anticipating consequences of their actions. "These are skills that are intangible," says Ward, "because you can’t touch or feel them but they result in a difference in your performance."
Ericsson and Ward have used techniques like this to compare thousands of experts with novices in fields from music, sports, medicine and law enforcement. They've found no evidence that experts are born with any more natural "talent" than other people. "We have yet to find any compelling evidence that any talent matters," says Ericsson.
Instead, the key to dramatic improvement in any field is -- that's right -- practice. But, it has to be what Ericsson calls "deliberate practice."
"A lot of people like to do things that they’re already good at, but what deliberate practice says is you need to find those things that you are weak at and that there’s room for improvement and that’s the activity you should focus on," Ericsson says.
"The interesting finding is that experts in any domain seem to share very, very similar attributes," he says, "and they are acquired through extended practices, not just mere experience. They actually are doing a lot of thinking work that would allow them now to acquire the skills that are necessary for superior performance."
Ericsson and Ward say their findings suggest that any novice can become an expert with enough of the right kind of training. "It suggests that anyone with the right kind of practice will be able to dramatically improve their performance and it looks like they would be able to become experts with sufficient practice," Ericsson says.
They suspect that what many people think of as "talent" may just be the motivation and commitment to continually challenge yourself.
Future research is focusing on healthy people who fail to reach expert levels, exploring the idea of individual limits. They're looking at individuals who prematurely stopped practicing and don't know how far they would've reached at a particular skill. "We are actively searching for people who can help us find those kinds of individual limits that would not allow somebody to become proficient in a language or proficient in some profession," Ericsson says. "If we could understand that, it would allow us to help a lot of individuals hopefully reach much higher levels of performance."