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Move Over, Economists!

Cites a report by William K. Estes (Harvard University) in 'Psychological Science,' who thinks the country might be better off with a council of psychological advisors than the council of economic advisers currently a fixture in Washington. Neither the public at large nor those in government see psychology as a science or practitioners as experts; Other thoughts on learning.

Americans are quick to call on psychologists to help solve personal problems. But no one asks them to tackle the Big Ones. Like education, health, and government.

A council of economic advisers is a fixture in Washington, though its record for predicting economic behavior is "spotty," contends William K. Estes, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard. He thinks we might be better off with a council of psychological advisers.

Psychologists have done a great deal of work illuminating most major issues. The military and the business world call on them regularly. But neither the public at large nor those in government see psychology as a science or practitioners as experts.

Funny thing is, psychologists practically invented the concept of expertise. They've defined what it is, know what it does and how, and the ways it differs from John Doe knowledge.

Much study has revealed that there are multiple levels of expertise. The most superficial is pattern recognition. Experts have an enormous memory bank of patterns from years of practicing highly specific tasks.

At a second level is the mastery of a large amount of knowledge specific to a field. And the deepest level of expertise is a grasp of the principles that apply across disciplines.

Estes's own studies of learning show that every instance of experience is recorded in memory as a pattern of specific features, each of which becomes a category enabling the memory of features at the next deeper level. The richer one's experience, the greater the variety of patterns that person can use as pathways to general principles.

People learn about underlying principles only by working with experts who apply them in a variety of contexts. That's not the way graduate training in psychology is done.

But the big issue is public perception. Psychology, alas, has an image problem, Estes laments in Psychological Science (Vol. 4, No. 3).

"The public thinks psychology has to do with couches," he reports. "People in the military have a more realistic view. We regularly help them with selection and training." The education system is just the reverse. Psychologists serve at the lowest levels, as counselors in schools; they are not used to advise on learning "at the highest levels."

Move over, economists and political scientists. Another kind of expert is looking for action.