Chaos in Expertise Research

Chaos in Expertise Research

This is a follow-up on my first post “What is adaptive expertise”. It’s a try to organize my thoughts about expertise research, see what it is all about, and where does adaptive expertise fit into it. I struggled with that question while writing my review study, struggled even more after a couple of short talks with experts on expertise, and still struggle with it. What follows is a description of key events in the expertise research field (A visual of it is available via this timeline.)

When researchers began looking into experts and expert performance, they assumed that experts are better able to use general heuristics and strategies, but soon this assumption turned out wrong. In the 70s, the field made a great jump thanks to Simon and Chase who discovered that experts are better able to perceive patterns. The concept of chunking was born: Experts are able to chunk large pieces of information together and therefore hold more information in their working memory and make better (quality and speed) information. At this point, the expert research split into research on expertise and research on expert performance (Ericsson & Towne, 2010). Expertise research focuses on the progression from novice to expert. Research on expertise performance looks at how experts can perform repetitively above the level of novices on standardized domain task. Important in this field of research is that task are representative of the domain, that experts perform better on it, and that this superior performance is not just a fluke, but can be observed repetitively. Deliberate practice is another important concept in this field and is viewed as the key driver for gaining expertise.

That was the easy part about expertise research.

Getting into the 80s, it starts to become a bit messy: Hatano and Inagaki (1986) propose the term adaptive expert  to make a difference in the performance level of expertise. Some years later, Olsen and Rasmussen offer the term reflective expertise, again to demonstrate that there are differences in the performance level of experts. In the 90s, Raufaste, Eyroll and Mariné (1998) propose the term super expert to, again, make a difference between people with the same amount of experience, but different levels of performance on the same task. Fortunately, this is related  back to adaptive expertise, reducing the numbers of types of expertise.

The research field of decision making offers the term intuitive expertise (Kahneman & Klein, 2009) to explain why some experts are able to make decision very quick. This form of expertise builds on the System 1/System 2 thinking model of Kahneman (2011). Lastly, from the management side the term professional expertise  has been proposed and includes behavioral traits of experts needed to stay an expert (van der Heijden, 1999). The term professional expertise is now most often replaced by the concept of employability and linked to the aging research (What to do with old people in companies).

So what about adaptive expertise? 

Now, that the different terms have been listed, it is clear that some overlap exists between the different expertise concept. Firstly, Raufaste and colleagues provide the empirical proof that there is a different in expert performance. A qualitative analysis on the difference between low and high expert performance, showed that the ‘super experts’ had a greater variety of experiences: These were radiologist who also did research. Thus, from here on in my mind, I’m gonna equate the term super expert with adaptive expert. What about reflective expert? Olsen and Rasmussen provide an extent description of the cognitive processes of reflective expert. Those people, realizing that their normal way of working doesn’t work, dig in their knowledge base to find a solution. They build a model of the situation with which they are confronted and try to find a match with the knowledge models they have. Again, a variety of experiences is the basis of reflective experts as through this they gain richer knowledge models. So, Olsen and Rasmussen provide the cognitive mechanism adaptive experts go through when confronted with  an unfamiliar situation. So far I have decided that

adaptive expertise = super expertise = reflective expertise

All three concepts are the same thing, just described from a different perspective.

Two sides of the same coin by lunasa47
Two sides of the same coin by lunasa47

I believe the term intuitive expertise doesn’t really fit into the expertise field. But I’m saying this with caution. Also here expertise is the result of repeated practice, a common aspect in expertise research. A lot of practice leads to error free performance which is expert performance. Intuitive expertise is thus ‘thinking fast without checking one’s thinking/action’. And I believe this goes against expertise performance. The higher meta-cognitive skills of experts, their drive for learning, and their use of deliberate practice does not allow for ‘performance without thinking’. At the moment, I’m not sure where this thought will lead me, but I decided to leave intuitive expertise out of the Expertise research.

Lastly, I’m left with where I began: What is the difference between adaptive expertise and expertise? Methodologically, adaptive experts are/should be studied with unfamiliar tasks which may not be representative of the domain, whereas expertise research looks at performance on domain representative tasks. A difference may also be that adaptive expertise research is based on a more constructive epistemology than expertise research. In the end, they may not be a difference at all. Maybe adaptive experts are those experts who keep on using deliberate practice and the other experts have stopped it? Or adaptive experts work on boundaries between domains and thus are confronted daily with new situations?


Ericsson, K. A., & Towne, T. J. (2010). Expertise. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 1(3), 404–416.

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262–272). New York: W. H. Freeman.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. The American psychologist, 64(6), 515–26. doi:10.1037/a0016755

Olsen, S. E., & Rasmussen, J. (1989). The reflective expert and the prenovice: Notes on skill-, rule-, and knowledge-based performance in the setting of instruction and training. In L. Bainbridge & S. A. Ruiz-Quintanilla (Eds.), Developing Skills with Information Technology (pp. 9–33). Chichester: john Wiley.

Raufaste, E., Eyrolle, H., & Mariné, C. (1998). Pertinence generation in radiological diagnosis: Spreading activation and the nature of expertise. Cognitive Science, 22(4), 517–546.

Lunasa47. (Nov 2012). Two sides of the same coin. Retrieved 8-1-2014 from

Van der Heijden, B. I. J. M. (1998). Measuring professional expertise: Operationalization and psychometric analyses. In The measurement and development of professional expertise throughout the career – A retrospective study among higher level Dutch professionals (pp. 53–106). Geffen: Béatrice I. J. M. van der Heijden.

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