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The Curse of Expertise

When relaying information to others, being an expert can backfire

With the growing anxiety about public safety posed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station which was severely damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it's no surprise that, around the world, nuclear power experts are being called upon to talk about the potential consequences of the disaster.

Yet, with so many knowledgeable people chiming in about possible dangers and precautions that should be taken to avoid excessive radiation exposure, it's hard not to wonder how so much misinformation gets out there as well. You might be surprised to learn that one potential source of this misinformation is the experts themselves.

Experts are called upon to teach those less knowledgeable all the time. Teachers must predict the issues and misconceptions that students will face when learning a new and tricky concept in, say, a physics class. And, baseball coaches must understand the types of problems that a pitcher may encounter when learning to throw a new curve ball. If not, how will the coaches devise the right training techniques to help their pitcher out of trouble? Yet, stepping outside your own point of view and relating to people who have less knowledge and skill is not such an easy task. People with a lot of knowledge are not as good as one might think at doing this.

Take a study conducted several years ago by Pamela Hinds, a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. Hinds was interested in understanding how experts in a new cell phone technology conveyed what they knew to novices so she asked people who sold the technology, cell phone customers (with some experience using the phones), and other people (with no experience at all with the new technology) to estimate how long it would take a new user to master the phones and the problems this new user might have.

After everyone had given their learning estimates, Hinds asked the folks who had never used a cell phone before to stick around and actually learn how to operate the new technology. The new users only had the written instructions that come tucked in the phone's package as a guide. She then compared the novices' learning time with the estimates people had given for how long it would take a new user to master the phone. She also documented the mistakes novices had made and noted whether people were able to predict these mistakes ahead of time.

You might expect that sales people would be stellar predictors. After all, they are experts in the technology. Surely they must have a good understanding of the problems that new users face and of the time it will take them to succeed. But, interestingly, this isn't what Hinds found.

Sales people focused so closely on their own performance and how effortlessly they operated the phone that they had a hard time predicting novices' misconceptions and mistakes. Because of this, sales people were the least accurate predictors of the new users' learning time and failed to predict most of the trouble novices got into. As an example, it took the new cell phone users around 30 minutes to learn how to use the phones. The sales people estimated that it would take novices less than 13 minutes. This is just about the time estimate given by the people who had never used the phones before. So, the experts performed like novices. Interestingly, the customers who had some (but not a ton) of cell phone experience were the most accurate predictors.

The take home message? Experts don't always understand the difficulties that laypeople will have. So, when thinking about curbing misconceptions about the health consequences of the disaster in Japan, it might actually be beneficial for news programs, the government, you name it, to not only bring nuclear experts to the table, but people with somewhat less knowledge as well. These less knowledgeable folks will help bring to the forefront the misconceptions people have and keep everyone on the same page. And, this is not only true for Japan, but extends to all sorts of situations where experts are called upon to quell fears about damaged products or potential health issues. As it happens, two heads can really be better than one, especially if each head is filled with different types of knowledge and information.

For more on the curse of expertise, check out my new book Choke!

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