Zach Hambrick, Ph.D.

Zach Hambrick Ph.D.

The Anatomy of an Expert

Understanding The Underpinnings of Expert Performance

The role of basic cognitive capacities

Posted Feb 21, 2014

Who rises to the top in music, sports, science, business, and professions? What distinguishes experts from also-rans? This is the topic of one of the longest-running debates in psychology, and of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Intelligence.

In his landmark book Hereditary Genius (1869), Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath and founder of the scientific study of individual differences, argued that eminence in such domains reflects innate ability. Galton based his claim on his finding that eminent performers tend to be related to one another. He noted, for example, that there were over twenty highly accomplished musicians in the Bach family—Johann Sebastian being just the most famous. Much more recently, as discussed in books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, the emphasis has been on the role of training.    

One question that my colleagues and I have focused on is whether basic cognitive abilities, of the sort captured by IQ tests, make a contribution to performance above and beyond training. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Elizabeth Meinz and I investigated individual differences in piano sight-reading skill. Sight-reading is playing a piece of music without preparation, and is what a pianist is called on to do when (for example) accompanying a soloist.

We had 57 musicians representing a wide range of piano skill—from beginner to expert—sight-read several pieces of music, and also take tests of working memory capacity and estimate the amount of time they had engaged in deliberate practice. As the Georgia Tech psychologist Randall Engle defines it, working memory capacity is the ability to hold important information in the focus of attention. And as the Florida State psychologist K. Anders Ericsson defines it, deliberate practice is engaging in activities that are specifically created to improve performance in a domain. (Ericsson’s study of elite musicians was, as he noted in a 2013 presentation, the “stimulus” for what Gladwell famously dubbed the 10,000 hour rule, which in turn was the inspiration for the song Ten Thousand Hours on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Grammy Award-winning album The Heist. Click here for a presentation in which Anders Ericsson comments on the connection between his work and the 10,000 hour rule, and here for an interview in which he explains the source of the 10,000 hour figure.)

Meinz and I found that deliberate practice was important in accounting for individual differences in sight-reading performance. In fact, it accounted for nearly half of the individual differences. However, working memory capacity added over 7 percent to the prediction of performance, a statistically significant contribution. Even more important, working memory capacity was just as important as a predictor of performance in beginners as it was in pianists with thousands of hours of deliberate practice. This means that, given two people with equal amounts of deliberate practice, the one with a higher worker memory capacity would be predicted to be a better sight-reader.       

As Meinz and I noted in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, there is no denying that deliberate practice is necessary to, say, become a great musician or athlete or artist. At the same time, our finding indicates that deliberate practice may not always be sufficient to do so, and that basic cognitive capacities also matter.   

The task now for researchers interested in advancing scientific understanding of expert performance is to develop and test theories that take into account as many factors as possible—including deliberate practice but also basic abilities such as working memory capacity.


Further Reading:

The special issue of the journal Intelligence on the origins of expertise will soon be published very soon. The following articles are already available online:

Ackerman, P. L. (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance: Talent and individual differences.  (See also Ackerman’s reply to Ericsson.)

de Bruin, A. B. H., Kok, E. M., Leppink, J., & Camp, G. (2014). Practice, intelligence, and enjoyment in novice chess players: A prospective study at the earliest stage of a chess career.

Ericsson, K. A. (2014). Why expert performance is special and cannot be extrapolated from studies of performance in the general population: A response to criticisms.

Grabner, R. H. (2014). The role of intelligence for performance in the prototypical expertise domain of chess.

Hambrick, D. Z., Oswald, F. L., Altmann, E. M., Meinz, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?

Plomin, R., Shakeshaft, N. G., McMillan, A., & Trzaskowski, M. (2014). Nature, nurture, and expertise. (See also Plomin et al.’s reply to Ericsson.)

Ruthsatz, J., Ruthsatz, K., Stephens, K. R. (2014). Putting practice into perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent.

Simonton, D. K. (2014). Creative performance, expertise acquisition, individual differences, and developmental antecedents: An integrative research agenda. (See also Simonton’s reply to Ericsson.)

Wai, J. (2014). Experts are born, then made: Combining prospective and retrospective longitudinal data shows that cognitive ability matters.


Other replies to be published soon.

Further Viewing:

Ericsson, K. A. (2013). Psychotherapy and the science of human excellence. Keynote presentation at the 2013 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, Washington, DC.

Visit to purchase this video

See an episode of the Brian Lehrer Show in which Scott Kaufman and I discuss the role of training and other factors in expert performance:


About the Author

Zach Hambrick, Ph.D.

Zach Hambrick, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University and an expert on intelligence and skill acquisition.

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