The Cost of Being an Expert

The Cost of Being an Expert

Being an expert is considered to be the benchmark of high achievement. But is there a dark side once expert status has been attained? What if the fear of losing one’s expert status actually causes one to act in a way at odds with their expertise? This would mean there is a very real and dangerous cost of being an expert.

Research has started examining this area more and more. It turns out, that there are three potential downsides to being an expert:

1) Experts Tend to Over Claim

A fascinating study recently explored if experts were more likely to over-claim how much they actually know. To test this, researchers asked people who rated themselves as financial experts were more likely to claim extensive knowledge about made up financial terms such as ‘pre-rated stocks’, ‘fixed-rate deduction’ and ‘annualized credit’.

This happens as they want to protect their reputation and fear that admitting to a lack of knowledge my jeopardize this. Unfortunately for them, this short-term self-protecting strategy is likely to hinder longer term learning and development, and as a result diminish their likelihood of maintaining expert status in the future.

2) Expertise May Lead to Close-Mindedness

Across a series of experiments, researchers have found that when people perceive themselves to be experts, there is a real risk that they will become more close-minded. Why might expertise be the antithesis of being open to new ideas? Two possible reasons exist:

  1. They suffer from a sunk-cost fallacy – the sunk cost fallacy states that people are more likely to believe something if they have already dedicated time and effort into it.
  2. They suffer from a consistency bias – the consistency bias states that we are more likely to agree with a new idea if it is similar to one that you used to agree it. This is because failure to do so would mean admitting that you had previously got it wrong.

3) Expert Reputations May Lead to Cheating

Having a smart reputation means that you are more likely to cheat, in order to maintain that reputation. This was the finding from a recent study that found that students who were told that they had a smart reputation were more likely to cheat on an exam. Likewise, other studies have found that those who are praised for their expertise and intelligence were more likely to give up on difficult tasks, enjoy the tasks less, perform worse and lie about how well they had done. This has also been associated with lower self-esteem and higher levels of stress.

How to Guard Against the Cost of Expertise

The above three areas highlight the dangers of faulty thinking amongst experts. However, there are two things that can help guard against this. The first, is what we can do as a society and the second is what the individual expert can do.

What Society Can Do – As a collective, we need to be more careful about who we label as an expert as we aren’t very good at it. This is due to a phenomenon known as the ‘Outcome Bias’, which states that if the outcome ends up good, then the person believes that all their decision making must have been good. Likewise, if the outcome is bad, then all the decisions were bad.

To illustrate this, researchers ran a study where they told participants about a doctor’s decision to do an operation which had an 8% chance of the patient dying. Some participants were told that the surgery was a success, whereas others were told that the patient had died. The participants were then asked to rate the doctor’s pre-operation decision to do the surgery. Participants who were told the patient had died rated the decision worse than those who were told the patient survived. Yet it was the same decision in both scenarios.

This shows how people can interpret the same act as either a success or a failure. But the outcome may have been down to chance. Or luck. Or a million other external factors. As a result, we may be poor at accurately judging who actually is an expert.

What Individual Experts Can Do - Being an expert usually means that that person has acquired a deep level of knowledge and understanding in one particular area. Key to them gaining their expertise was their ability to be open to learning, improving their knowledge and working hard. However, there is a danger that once this ‘expert status’ has been achieved, they stop doing the things that got them there in the first place. By not over-claiming, by keeping an open mind and being honest when they get things wrong, they give themselves the best chance of maintaining their expert status.

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