Day By Day

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Utility of Expertise

Malcolm Gladwell is not one of my favorite authors -- his analysis is often far too shallow and superficial for my tastes -- but he does sell a lot of books and occasionally, like a blind hog snuffling for truffles, he stumbles upon a nugget of truth. Here he compares game-playing expertise, such as that acquired by bridge-masters, with real life situations. He notes that in the closed, rule-bound, world of games, the acquisition of expertise can make you a consistent winner, but in the open world of business, government, military affairs, etc. expertise is no guarantee of success and, in fact, brings with it a whole new set of risks. In a structured environment expertise has great value -- in the real world, not so much.
In bridge, there is such a thing as expertise unencumbered by bias. That’s because, as the psychologist Gideon Keren points out, bridge involves “related items with continuous feedback.” It has rules and boundaries and situations that repeat themselves and clear patterns that develop—and when a player makes a mistake of overconfidence he or she learns of the consequences of that mistake almost immediately. In other words, it’s a game. But running an investment bank is not, in this sense, a game: it is not a closed world with a limited set of possibilities. It is an open world where one day a calamity can happen that no one had dreamed could happen, and where you can make a mistake of overconfidence and not personally feel the consequences for years and years—if at all. Perhaps this is part of why we play games: there is something intoxicating about pure expertise, and the real mastery we can attain around a card table or behind the wheel of a racecar emboldens us when we move into the more complex realms. “I’m good at that. I must be good at this, too,” we tell ourselves, forgetting that in wars and on Wall Street there is no such thing as absolute expertise, that every step taken toward mastery brings with it an increased risk of mastery’s curse.
Read the whole thing here.

The illusion that the real world, in all its indeterminate complexity, can be reduced to a set of learnable principles and skills lies behind the cult of expertise that sustains a mediocre meritocracy. It also sells a lot of books because people like Gladwell can convey to their readers the illusion of mastery and as he notes, there is something intoxicating about expertise, even if it is illusory.