Can being an expert undermine your performance?

As with bilingualism, it’s generally assumed that being an expert completely beneficial and has no downsides to performance. However we know that expertise tends to be domain specific, for example, chess grand masters can memorise chess boards far more quickly and easily that novices, but on standard cognitive tests tend to fare no better. In fact, if you arrange chess pieces to positions that would never be encountered in an actual game, again their recall is no better than chess novices, showing just how domain-specific expertise can be. But surely within a given domain, expertise can only be beneficial?

Unlucky Kasparov

Castel, McCabe, Roediger and Heitman suggest not. They gave 40 students a memory test consisting of eleven animal names and eleven body parts. The twist here was that all the animal names were also NFL team names, like dolphins, colts, seahawks and bears. After the memory test, participants were given an NFL quiz, and the group was split into two, those scoring above and below the median on this test, to give high expertise and low expertise groups in the domain of NFL knowledge.

The results on the memory test for the two groups was then compared. Indeed, the NFL experts remembered more of the animal names than the non-experts, while there was no difference between groups on the body parts test. So far so good, however, the researchers also tested for incorrect answers — NFL animal team names and body parts that were not part of the original test. The results indicated that the experts were much more likely to make incorrect guesses than the non-experts. The authors suggest that this represents memory errors, the domain-relevant information of the experts got in the way of their accurate recall of the animal names. Since there was no difference between groups in body part experience, false answers were about even between groups on that test.

Is this really the case though? Or was it that the experts consciously noticed that the animal names belonged to the NFL teams and simply reeled off as many as they could remember during recall. Perhaps it was not a case of the existing schema interfering with memory, but a recognition that they already know these names, so why bother taking the extra effort to think back and recall? Why not just reel off my schema? I wonder if the results would be the same if participants were told that they would score 1 point for a correct guess, but minus 1 point for an incorrect guess, which might increase the incentive to actually recall. In other words, maybe this effect is a conscious strategy used in situations where there’s no cost to an incorrect answer.

However, there are other studies that support the authors’ conclusions, which I haven’t read so perhaps my question has been answered before or since. Either way, it’s an interesting thought that the knowledge base acquired by experts might be detrimental in certain tasks.

Castel AD, McCabe DP, Roediger HL 3rd, & Heitman JL (2007). The dark side of expertise: domain-specific memory errors. Psychological science, 18 (1), 3-5 PMID: 17362368

Why are some people more driven than others???

Some people just have that “Get up and go,” don’t they??? This goes by many names – self-control, grit, motivation, drive, persistence, work-ethic. When it comes to succeeding in a particular pursuit, this thing is a pretty important factor, too. One study found that self-reported grit was more important than IQ in predicting a number of outcomes in eighth-grade students:

Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework.

It’s a pretty common trait among successful people, too. Will Smith is a pretty successful guy by most standards. Why is that? Here’s what he has to say about success:

Why are some people driven like this, while others are happy to tread water? Will Smith is clearly a very competitive guy with a huge work ethic. Where other people would be happy to take a day off, he keeps on working. Where other people slow down, he speeds up. Sounds exhausting! What is behind such a huge amount of effort?


I don’t believe that this is a fixed trait, because different people in different cultures and environments will react differently. But I do think genetics play a role. Many traits studied by psychologists have a strong genetic component, according to studies of twins. So maybe the traits that lead to being driven also develop more easily in people with a certain set of genes. I’ve never believed the idea that “All people are created equal.” Clearly, some people are born with better aptitudes in different areas than others. We’re not all born with the same mental blank slate, onto which we can develop in different directions.

Intrinsic Motivation

I’ve talked before about the difference between intrinsic motivation (something you do for its own sake) versus extrinsic motivation (something you do for a reward). Could it be that lack of drive is simply a symptom of doing something for a reward, as opposed to doing it for the pure pleasure of doing it?

Michael Jordan talks in his autobiography about how the massive amount of effort he put into training was fun. For him, getting up early every day to practice free throws was scarcely an effort. Not that it’s right to say he has no work ethic — of course not — only that what seems on the outside to be a strong work ethic and “forcing” of behaviours is sometimes less so from the inside.

The key thing to keep in mind here is difficulty. In the video above, Will Smith mentions the idea of talent versus skill, of honing your craft for thousands of hours until you’re a master. This gels with Ericsson‘s work on deliberate practice, and the well-known (thanks to Malcolm Gladwell) idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery, regardless of the starting skill level. Deliberate practice is different to just doing the activity. It is doing it at the outer limit of your ability. It’s working on those hard, frustrating aspects that actually take effort. If you find a pentatonic scale difficult but could jam along to “She Loves You” all day long, then working on the former contributes to your 10,000 hours but the latter does not.

If your craft is something that naturally appeals to you, and you enjoy, so much the better, but you’ll still have times you don’t want to practice, or you’d rather relax, or where you’ve reached a plateau that is hard for you to progress past. Therefore, to the extent that skill level plays a role in success, it stands to reason that grit, persistence, and work ethic is going to play a role in success regardless of intrinsic motivation. As beneficial as it may be, don’t make the mistake of thinking that intrinsic motivation is necessarily synonymous with “high” motivation. I read books for intrinsic reasons, but I don’t always want to read.

You could say therefore, that success can stem from something that you’re intrinsically motivated to do, but either doesn’t require high levels of skill, or you already have high levels of skill in. As long as it’s not something mundane like eating. If you can find something like that, you’re home free, so it’s worth considering if any activities like this exist for you.

However, there is a trap here. If you’re looking for external success via something you’re intrinsically motivated to do, it could very easily switch to something you’re extrinsically motivated to do when you start seeing it as a path to external rewards. This is particularly dangerous, because as Dan Pink notes, motivation for activities only tends to be increased by external rewards when these are rote, boring, repetitive tasks. Ability on tasks that require creative thought or effort tends to be stunted by the promise of rewards. Maybe that’s why a musician’s second album is usually worse than the first?

Purpose / Meaning

Maybe some people have a greater sense of purpose behind them, and this provides the motivation for them to keep going even through difficult times. Survival is one such purpose. It’s hard to imaging Chinese factory workers doing 18 hour days in terrible conditions for any reason other than to survive. If they had a few million in the bank, that would seem like an absurd course of action.

Being anchored to a purpose might keep people going. When they feel like they want to take a break, they remind themselves of what they are trying to do, and they suddenly feel the urge to continue. This makes sense to me. I think our bodies keep energy in reserve, even when we feel very tired, just in case something of high importance becomes salient. Many a times I’ve been walking down the street, tired and hunched, when I see a pretty girl walking the opposite way. Isn’t it funny? I suddenly find the energy to walk upright and stick my chest out a bit!

I imagine this as a kind of evolutionary reserve power store, just in case something comes up that might influence our ability to survive our reproduce. But because our brains are adaptable, and self-programmable, we can “install” a number of rules so our brain learns other occasions it should access our reserve power. The ability to build a sense of purpose might be one such thing. Of the top of my head, I can think of one study that backs this up, where people who reviewed their core values did better in a self-control task than people who didn’t.

The need for success itself might serve this role for some. Why would Will Smith rather die than get off a treadmill before you? You could imagine some negative motivations behind this, like not wanting to feel like a failure, or status consciousness taken to such an extreme level that people would rather try to beat everyone that simply deal with that issue. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Competition can be a tool, something that you use to motivate yourself but deep down understand is essentially meaningless. Beyond competition, the desire to contribute and to serve might provide that purpose. There are many examples of people being willing to put themselves through hell, even to die, for a purpose. This is something we’ve been reminded of in recent years but the mechanism has always existed.

If this is correct, the action step here is to install a purpose into yourself, to find the meaning behind what you want to do. There are two ways. One is to determine your values, beliefs and convictions, and pick your direction based on them. This makes sense but is very difficult. If you ask yourself “What do I value?”, “What do I believe?”, it would be hard to know if the answer is “real,” and not something that has been pushed into your head from one of the 10 zillion sources we’re bombarded from in daily life. How “deep” do you have to go to find your true purpose, if there is such a thing, and where does it even come from?

The other way is to take your direction, and integrate your values into it. This strikes me as a temporary solution at best since the two probably won’t fit together very well. It’s unlikely you be pursuing a path that’s in line with your core values and not know it on some level. The reverse is probably true as well, if you’re going in a “wrong” direction there’s probably a little niggling feeling that pops up occasionally (but you bash it back down with the perks of the job).

Have I missed anything?

What do you think about this? Why are some people more driven than others? This isn’t an extensive list, just a few ideas – what have I missed?

Also, what do you think about the “how” side of things. How does one install a sense of purpose for instance?

Here’s another question – can the lack of purpose, motivation and genetic propensity be overcome through “techniques?” If you set goals, go over your values, plan your time, etc., is that enough?

Awareness of the body is related to intuition – but can sometimes lead to the wrong decisions!

A few months ago I did a little experiment. For a month, I tried to make all my decisions based on intuition and gut feeling, rather than logically thinking things through. This proved harder than it sounds, and some interesting things happened. It was quite a freaky experience, in the sense that many things worked out pretty well, even though I had no idea where all these decisions were going to end up. Some pretty big changes happened that month, including decisions about how I earn a living and where I live, so if you wanted to do something similar, think hard about that. Or trust your gut, whatever.

During this month I looked for ways to improve intuitive decision making. Most of what I found related to psychic intuitions, and I tried some of these exercises. Unfortunately the scientific literature is pretty sparse on this topic, so I was pretty interested to hear about Barney Dunn and colleagues’ (2010) recent paper looking into how interoception influences intuitive decision making.

If you’re wondering, interoception is not a hit film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It refers to the amount that people are aware of their own bodily sensations. Surprisingly, I found that there’s a little controversy in psychology over when bodily responses occur in the decision making process. The debate is over whether bodily signals influence decision making, or whether they are simply a product of it. This is what the paper was looking into, through two tests of whether accuracy in a cognitive processing task is related to the ability to perceive the feelings in the body.

In the first test, participants were shown a set of images, which evoke different emotions (e.g, fear, neutral, positive). For each image, they self-rated the images for valence (positive to negative) and arousal (whether it makes you feel more alert or more sleepy/dull). At the same time, they were hooked up to an ECG, measuring heartbeat. Next everyone had to count their heartbeats over various time frames, while an ECG measured their actual number of heartbeats. This tests their interoceptive skills.

What they are doing here, is comparing the bodily response to the pictures with the actual response indicated by the ECG. The hypothesis is that in people with high interoceptive sensitivity (as measured in the heartbeat counting task), the difference between actual and reported arousal would be closer than that of less interoceptive individuals. And this is what the results showed, for the arousal ratings but not the valence ratings.

The second study is much more interesting. Participants play a simulated gambling game. Four decks of cards are presented, two of which are profitable on average, two of which aren’t. Over time, participants should get a feel for which decks help them win and which help them lose. And so they did – overall. people showed a preference for the profitable decks, and this got stronger as the game went on. Just like in the last study, this intuitive decision making was related to the degree of interoceptive sensitivity the participants had.

These results support the idea that interoception can improve intuitive decision making, at least in the conditions these things were measured and tested in here. Perhaps improving interoception in people might also improve their decision making in this task? It would be interesting to compare some experienced meditators to novices.

Be warned, however, that interoception can be a mixed blessing, depending on whether the intuitions are leading you to good or bad decisions. For 27% of people in the second study, their intuition was leading them to the unprofitable decks!

That’s a pretty tough one to explain. Why would your intuition lead you to a negative outcome? Perhaps there’s some interplay between the intuitions and your beliefs about what’s good and bad. Maybe you’re a shy person who doesn’t want to get excited in public, and your intuition leads you to decision that prevent you having to jump for joy in front of other people.

I emailed Barney Dunn to ask about this, thinking low self-esteem might explain this effect. He said “While we didn’t directly control for self esteem, the effects still hold when controlling for depression and anxiety. You might expect depression in particular to be a proxy for low self esteem.” So maybe I’m wrong, but either way it doesn’t seem to be a simple intuition = good, no intuition = bad formula. It might be more complex than that.


Dunn, B. D., Galton, H., Morgan, R., Evans, D., Oliver, C., Meyer, M., Cusack, R., Lawrence, A. D., Dalgleish, T. (2010). Listening to your heart: How interoception shapes emotion experience and intuitive decision-making. Psychological Science, 21, 1835-1844

Six Success-Enhancing Behaviours that Good Moods Bring You

Just like Santa Clause, happiness brings gifts with it too – and you don’t have to be good all year to get them!  In the last three articles, I’ve discussed a paper arguing that happiness leads to success, through a better career, better relationships and better health.  This works in part through behaviour – positive moods promote positive behaviours – ones that are friendly to success.  The evidence suggests six broad categories of behaviour that result from happiness.  Here they are:

1) Positive Perceptions of Self and Others

Happy people are optimists, who tend to have higher self-esteem.  They think well of themselves and the different areas of their life; family life, romantic life, education, leisure, and so on.  This positive attitude spills over onto other people too – happy people tend to like other people more.

So what comes first, happiness or high self-esteem?  You’d think it was self-esteem, but in fact it’s a little of both.  Self-esteem does bring happiness, but being satisfied with your life also brings self-esteem and confidence.

2) Sociability and Activity

Happy people tend to be more extraverted – more outgoing, active and energetic.  Positive emotion is described my some researchers as the ‘glue’ that holds the different aspects of extraversion together.  Happiness is associated with more formal and informal social activity, including voluntary activities, time with friends, learning new skills and taking classes, and even being more informed about politics.  Happier people seem to be more informed and interested in learning new things.

If people are induced into a positive mood (they usually do this with uplifting videos), they are more likely to start conversations with a ‘stranger’ (who was actually a confederate, working undercover for the researchers).  So there you go, if you want to be more social, cheer up.  It works.

All those new skills and contacts would certainly be useful in trying to become successful, plus people with a larger social network tend to be luckier, too.

3) Likability and Cooperation

Are cheerful, upbeat people fun to be around, or just plain annoying for being so cheerful?  The former is actually true – happy people are liked more than unhappy people.  They are also perceived more favourable by people – they are seen as more intelligent, competent, friendly, assertive, less selfish and more moral.  People in happy moods are also more approachable and inviting to others.

My favourite variation on a classic saying goes like this: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – and how much they like you.”  Success involves other people, being likeable and well thought of can only be beneficial.

4) Prosocial Behaviour

A great deal of research now supports the idea that happy people are more generous and charitable.  They just have a greater interest in helping other people.  This goes hand-in-hand with the authors’ original idea that happiness indicates conditions of abundance, so to speak (see the first post in this serious, second paragraph down).

Why is prosocial behaviour helpful to success?  It makes people more likeable, strengthens social bonds and networks, and brings future profits through the principle of reciprocity (you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours!).

5) Physical Well-Being and Coping

Positive moods are associated with healthy behaviour both long and short-term – happy individuals are less likely to take drugs and eat unhealthy food in the future, and recent positive moods are associated with less cigarette and alcohol use, as well as better quality sleep and more exercise.  One study exposed participants to the cold virus, and people who generally have a more positive emotional style were less likely to develop a cold from it.

Another interesting finding, is that happy moods help you resist temptation when you’re trying to quit something (eg, smoking, junk food).  If you’ve ‘given in’, then before you continue your indulgence, do something to bring your mood up.  Watch an uplifting film, a sitcom you like, count your blessings or do some other self-help technique.

According to researchers, this replenishes the deflated ego, giving you more will power.  Just don’t use a pick-me-up that reminds you of the thing you’re trying to abstain from! (eg if you’re quitting junk food and you normally eat in front of the TV, don’t watch TV to boost your mood).

Happiness also seems to have a direct effect on health.  Although there is little evidence at present, concepts related to happiness like humour and optimism have been shown to increase immune system efficiency.  One study found higher antibody activity on days with more positive moods than negative moods.

A happy disposition also leads to better coping during life’s difficult times, probably through the increased optimism and hope that tends to come with happiness.

6) Creativity and Problem Solving

The studies that exist on happiness and creativity suggest that the two tend to come together in people.  There is a need for more research in this area, but is seems that it is moment-to-moment happiness that is beneficial to creativity, rather than happiness as a trait.  In other words, if you take a person who is usually in a bad mood and cheer him up, he should be more creative while his mood is good – even though his disposition might be as grumpy as the dwarf of the same name.

Of course, you can always bring up the ‘troubled artist’ stereotype to challenge these findings – and in some studies, people in sad moods are more creative than people in a neutral mood – but it’s the cheerful ones that usually show the most creativity.  But it’s a valid challenge to the idea, and the apparent conflict might just be due to different definitions of creativity.

The reason that happiness is good for creativity may be that it broadens your perception and thinking somewhat.  This is in opposition to ‘negative’ emotions, which narrow your potential thoughts and actions down as a survival instinct, eg. fear makes you escape or hide, anger makes you retaliate against a transgressor, and so on.

When it comes to complex problem solving, however, the findings are quite mixed.  In some mental tasks, negative moods are more effective, in others, positive ones are.  The difference seems to be because good moods increase a person’s reliance on heuristics (heuristics = rules of thumb, stereotypes, or mental shortcuts) – rather than slowing down and thinking the task through carefully and analytically.  So positive emotions are perhaps better when there is existing knowledge and heuristics that can be applied to a task.

Why would good moods increase your use of heuristics?  Perhaps because if things are going well for you, it makes sense to use heuristics you’ve already used, because these are probably what got you the success in the first place.

But don’t start listening to your Radiohead albums before you do your evening Sudoku puzzle, thinking that the intense depression will help you out.  If you’re in a positive mood you can still access your analytical side; you just have to do it deliberately.


The point of these four posts was to hopefully give you perspective on happiness that you might not have taken before.  In summary:

  • It’s an action signal just like other emotions
  • The actions it signals are ones that help you move towards goals
  • Therefore, good moods are not solely a result of a consequence of success (although they certainly are that), they are part of the cause of success.

Remember – ‘happiness’, in the paper I got this information from, is defined by frequent positive emotions and infrequent (but not absent) negative emotions – a slightly different definition than I’ve used previously.

Even though ‘negative’ emotions are not that pleasant to experience, it’s easy to imagine that they serve a useful purpose, that when you’re scared it’s to keep you safe, to keep you from doing things that your mind associates with danger.  If you didn’t have fear, you’d get into a lot of trouble.

Likewise, happiness has a purpose too.  It’s not just there so that you can feel good!  It’s a signal, information about your circumstances.  You’re progressing well towards your goals, you have resources, allies and security.  Because of this, happiness nudges your behaviour in a certain direction.  Unlike fear, though, the direction is towards goals, not away from them.

Your mind then opens up a few mental resources for you; makes you more interested in goals, more creative, and gives you a positive outlook on any negative things that might be going on, so that they don’t interfere with your advancement.

Happiness is not a guarantee to success, of course, but the point is that it plays a measurable role.  It’s one piece of the puzzle.  If you’re suitably convinced of this, you’ll probably want to read How to be Happier, to find tested ways of increasing your happiness.

This series was based on the below paper published in Psychological Bulletin by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Deiner – three big names in positive psychology.  It was a huge effort, they analysed 225 studies with over 275,000 participants in total!  All three researchers have books out so if you like the stuff in these articles, stick their names into Amazon and see if there’s something you like!

Apart from the side-splitting humour, all the points in this article came from this reference.  If you’re looking for the original studies, get the pdf of the above reference and do a Ctrl+F (or Apple+F) to search for the finding you’re looking for.  Then find the study in their reference list.

Recommended Reading:


(1) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Deiner, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131/6, 803–855

How to manage your weaknesses

There’s a big focus on weaknesses in the world these days. It seems like people want to balance themselves out by developing their weaknesses – to become rounded. Previously, I’ve argued that it’s best not to be rounded, that we’re better off focusing on our strengths. But if we do this, we will still have weaknesses, so what do we do about them? That’s what this article is about.

First of all, why this focus on weaknesses, why are they so alluring? I want to suggest an explanation for why we’re so weakness-focused, and offer some suggestions on working around weaknesses, mainly garnered from the book ‘Now, Discover your Strengths‘.

A potential employer wants to know your limitations to help decide between applicants. But even after you’re employed, you’ll hear about ‘development’, ‘areas that need work’, and so on. In certain roles this is unavoidable, because there’s a minimum standard of performance that is expected. But we’ll often see development programs with the aim of rounding off individuals, rather than trying to create specialists. This might be due to our inherent negativity bias.

Our negativity bias is well documented by researchers. There are paragons of positivity in our species, for sure, but most of us are pretty focused on the negative. Not necessarily in a debilitating way; its more of precautionary thing. It makes sense because we evolved out in the plains of Africa, where what you don’t know might kill you. Where being ostracised from the group means potential death, not just pointing and laughing in the playground.

“The mind reacts more strongly to the bad than to the good.”

Say you find a new fruit. If it’s safe, you get a bit of sugar and some nutrients. If it’s dangerous, you’re dead. Say you hear a rustling in the bushes. If it’s a friend, you get a laugh and a joke. If it’s a predator, you’re dead. Something negative was many times more hazardous than something positive was beneficial. Hence our bias towards the negative. The mind reacts more strongly to bad than to good. Don’t believe me? Ask a newspaper editor which headlines sell more papers!

Maybe this is why if we see a weakness, we want to fix it. It’s human nature, your mind thinks it’s important to you, to your safety. Even though you’re not living in a nomadic tribe in the African savannah (unless tribes have developed laptops and wireless internet), your instincts are wired for that environment.

What is a weakness?

If a strength is a trait that can be applied productively in a given domain, a weakness is something that hinders performance in a given domain. My inability to efficiently operate an industrial crane is not a weakness in running this website. My time-management and organisation skills are.

People are typically much better at identifying their weaknesses than their strengths. If you need help, you could look at your strengths questionnaire outputs and see what’s ranked near the bottom, or think about a particular task and see if there’s something specific holding you back.

Managing weaknesses

You might be able to fool an interviewer asking you what your strengths and weaknesses are. Well, technically, they know you’re fooling them, it’s just a matter of being a better fool than the next applicant. But if you actually do have weaknesses that are relevant to your career, side-project, hobby, or whatever, they may need to be addressed. How do you deal with that, given that we’re now ‘sticking to our strengths’? Here are a few ideas:

1) Practice

I know. I’m contradicting my previous articles where I said to spend your time working on your strengths. But if a weakness is really holding you back and you can’t get around it, one of the options is to improve it. As was said in Now, Discover your Strengths, this isn’t really a charge for glory and success, it’s damage limitation. If you really can’t get out of or delegate a monthly presentation, you’d better work on your speaking and communication – if only a little bit. You can also look into the skills and knowledge you’ll need.

2) Create a Support System

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a naturally organised person. I don’t immediately know the most important thing to do, or use my time in the best way. To get around this, I’ve been following the Zen To Done course – to gradually adopt a decent organisation system. After 10 months, the aim is to be fully organised and more productive. That’s an example of a support system.

Or take something like social intelligence. Remembering a person’s name the second time we meet them might help us come across as more socially intelligent. This is a common problem, I hear. Actually for me, it’s more that I’m weak at recognising faces than remembering names, but I can’t think of an example for that. Anyway, there are memory techniques and mnemonic tricks you can use to do learn names, as well as remember other things about the person to bring up and ask about – makes you seem warm and friendly. That’s another example of a support system to get around a weakness – it’s not going to make you Mr or Mrs Charisma, but like I said, damage control.

3) Outsource

Get a partner – outsource your weaknesses to someone else. This can work when starting a particular project or venture, or even within a role if there’s someone who’s skilled in one area and you in another. Outsourcing weaknesses is something we all do anyway, much to our accountants’ delight.

4) Drop it

Most of the time, a weakness isn’t a threat to you – maybe to your ego, but not to your safety. So maybe it’s time to let that go a little bit. If it’s something you can’t avoid, then you’ll have to develop it or outsource it. If it’s really important to you, then you have no choice either. But my personal opinion is that we should get over the idea that we have to be rounded people, ready for any situation that might come up. Unless your name is James Bond, it just seems like a great investment of time and effort, for very little benefit.

Recommended Reading: