Ericsson, K. Anders and Ward, Paul (2007) Capturing the Naturally Occurring Superior Performance of Experts in the Laboratory: Toward a Science of Expert and Exceptional Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6). pp. 346-350. ISSN 0963-7214

Expertise researchers have traditionally shied away from studying the highest levels of achievement in favor of studying basic cognitive processes, such as memory and categorization. In this article, we present a different approach that is focused on capturing superior (expert) performance on representative tasks that reveal the essential characteristics of expertise in a given domain. In domains where expert performance is measurable, acquisition is gradual and the highest levels are only attained after 10 years of intense preparation—even for the most “talented.” Analyses of reproducibly superior performance show that it is mediated by physiological adaptations and cognitive skills acquired as a result of the cumulative effects of special practice activities (deliberate practice). It appears that the genes necessary to attain such adaptations and expert skills can be activated in healthy children—the only clear exceptions to date being genes that control body size and height. Our knowledge of how experts acquire their superior skills provides insights into the potential for human adaptation and skill acquisition and has important implications for theories of the structure of general and expert cognition, as well as for training interventions in applied psychology and education.

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