Why experts think less but produce more than anyone else

Why an expert produces more, with less effort and thinking – new study


There is a central paradox at the heart of expertise: experts consistently perform better than novices, whilst at the same time they engage in less thinking and energy than novices. A core question that has intrigued psychologists for years is how can less thinking and cognitive processing produce better performance?

The standard understanding about this issue is that experts have acquired a set of skills (both physical and cognitive) and automated them. In effect, experts chunk sets of skills and lines of thinking into automated ‘modules’ that they can combine rapidly in a range of different and new contexts. Essentially, experts create cognitive shortcuts or routines.

…how can less thinking and cognitive processing produce better performance?

So, rather than having to think through and deliberately take action, experts simply trigger a series of pre-programmed shortcuts. However, this does not explain how experts manage to combine these pre-programmed modules in new contexts.

Experts make things look really easy

Context Retrieval and Updating

A new study from Vanderbilt University in the US has proposed a new theory called the Context Retrieval and Updating model, or CRU for short. What the model has found is that there is a shift in the way the brain deals with information as it progresses from novice to expert.

Novice processing

In novice situations, the learner has to go through a process in series using top-down control. What this means is that the learner has to process everything, in series, one step at a time within capacity of their working memory. 

This means that the processing is:

  1. Step-by-step
  2. Slower (takes time)
  3. Deliberate
  4. Increases the cognitive processing load
Novices process differently to experts

Expert processing or automatic control

What the study found was that experts process very little within their working memory, with the load being transferred to the motor system for physical skills and other cognitive processes, such as speech systems, reasoning systems etc. that do not require working memory to function.

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This shift from working memory to automatic control through a cognitive system frees up the working memory and similar systems to process data about the context and novelties within the context.

Automatic control

Previous assumption about automatic control in expert systems was that it was essentially ‘blind’ and just running automatically. However, the Context Retrieval and Updating model shows that the processing is transferred from the working memory systems into other systems, such as the motor system (muscle memory), which frees up the working memory to focus on context and anomalies. This means that the automatic systems or modules that are transferred out of the working memory are still being controlled by the individual.

Further, this means that the expert learns then to ‘chunk’ the impact of different contexts on their area of expertise and automate them in turn. This further frees up the load on the working memory and higher order cognitive systems. 

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page