Good and bad instinct: Learning to tell the difference between expertise and evolution

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the illusory self, and encouraged a healthy scepticism regarding the things you feel are ‘right’. I claimed that, often, the things that we feel are the right thing to do are very much the wrong thing, themselves the product of outmoded evolutionary processes and poor programming. Today, I’d like to extend that idea to highlight a different sort of gut-feeling (one that’s particularly important): the instinct that comes from expertise.


To reiterate – a lot of our urges and impulses are the result of an evolved brain, with redundant behaviours programmed in long before we were human. We can usually categorise these types of ‘instincts’ into either approach or avoidance-based behaviours. Approach behaviours are activated in the presence of (limbic system) neural activity in the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, comprising the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain evolved to reward behaviours that increased the potential for survival (and gene transmission) including eating and feeding, sexual behaviour and, interestingly, certain types of risk where there’s a chance of a high pay-off (gambling represents a modern analogue of this type of risk taking). When these brain areas are active, they experience a substantial increase in dopamine levels, resulting in what we interpret as a great deal of pleasure. In fact, pretty much anything that feels pleasurable to you (ranging from chocolate to a sunset) is most likely the result of activity in this part of the brain.

The limbic system (mid brain) also includes the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The amygdala is, primarily concerned with avoidance behaviours; that is, behaviours that also increase the likelihood of survival, but through running away rather than running towards. Consequently, whenever we feel distrust, unease, anxiety, discomfort, anger, or outright fear, it’s usually because this part of the brain has detected something that it thinks might ‘eat us’. Its response is pretty visceral – we feel highly uncomfortable and want to get away. Sometimes, however, it’s manifest as a gnawing in the stomach or a constriction in the throat. This ‘somatic’ anxiety can appear without any obvious cause, and leads us to behave in a variety of ways that are (usually) counterproductive (i.e., we avoid things we should probably be attending to).

The approach-avoidance centres in the brain aren’t just triggered by environmental activity – they can be activated by our thoughts or memories, or simply by core programming (schemas). The consequence is a feeling (either pleasant or unpleasant) that we pay attention to, and modifications to our behaviour. These types of ‘instincts’ are not effective for modern humans. They are (for the most part) hardware and software-based bugs in a complex system. Have a read here, here, here and here for some ideas about how to learn to understand them and behave accordingly.

In other words, most of the stuff you do because it feels ‘right’ is wrong (at least from a human performance perspective).

On the other hand, humans also have an incredible amount of ‘higher’ functioning ability. The cerebral cortex and its subregions allows us to develop a complex understanding of the world. To me, one of the most interesting abilities of humans is their ability to develop expertise – that is, the ability to, through thousands of hours of programming, become incredible at one or more things, and to then be able to act in almost superhuman ways without requiring much ‘conscious’ thought.

Expertise is one of those words that is often (to my mind) misused. Logging into LinkedIn the other day, I saw that they’d initiated a system that encourages its members to claim expertise in whatever they want, with a sort of peer review that ends up in an orgy of mutual self-congratulations (oh dear, am I ranting again?). Unfortunately expertise isn’t so easy, and despite the fact that I (and pretty much everyone else it seems) claimed six or seven areas of expertise this is, in fact, a bunch of crap.  There are no hard and fast rules regarding the development of expertise (Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book “Blink” attempts to document this), but chances are it takes thousands of hours of focused attention to achieve a measure of expertise in a single area, and most of us just aren’t that focused. In fact, for the majority of humans, active learning stops in the late teens (or early twenties if you went to university). From that point on, it’s usually just repetition and refinement of existing routines (man I’m feeling bleak today…).

However anyone gets there, if they do expertise is an amazing thing. It allows genuine experts to do incredible things without apparent effort. We’ve all seen this in action: elite athletes, talented musicians, and surgeons all perform outrageously complicated activities (things that are so far out of reach for most of us) smoothly, gracefully, and elegantly. Their grace often hides the incredible amount of effort that’s been exerted in order to achieve that level of effectiveness.

OK, so few of us will ever achieve a pinnacle of expertise. But (and here’s the good part) most of us will develop some level of expertise that enables us to do something really well (or at least, quite well). Now here’s the really important part: how do we tell the difference between gut feeling based on expertise, and gut feeling based on evolution?

There’s a really simple answer: if there’s a driving emotion behind the gut feeling (like frustration, anger, anxiety, desire, hunger, or inexplicable want), chances are it’s not expertise at work. In fact, any of these motivators should be treated with outright suspicion. Equally important, if the gut feeling is associated with feelings of pride, arrogance or hubris, it’s also not likely to be expertise. It’s probably the result of a rewarded arrogance loop or even the Dunning-Kruger effect in which people overestimate their abilities.

I want to use two examples to try and illustrate this notion. The first is driving a car. Even though all drivers have attained a certain amount of expertise, there is huge variability in driving acumen. Unfortunately, however, most of us fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect when driving. Pretty much all of us believe that we’re a better driver than the people around us (this is, of course, a statistical impossibility), and a lot of the decisions we make when driving are anything but emotionless (road rage being the scariest example of the truly fucked up sense of entitlement some people get when behind the wheel of a car). In fact, when it comes to driving, most of us rely on the wrong gut feelings to guide our actions. For example, if someone cuts us off, instead of allowing our driving expertise to take over (brake or swerve based on instructions from our (hopefully) well programmed cerebrum –  à la a racing driver), most of us act based on the other gut feeling. We hit the horn, scream and shout, or act in other inappropriate ways (sometimes we actually do this instead of driving).

As counterpoint, imagine a situation in which a pilot is required to make an emergency landing. Something has gone wrong with the plane, error alarms are going off in the cockpit, he or she has 200+ terrified passengers in the back, and it’s the pilot’s job to land the plane safely. Does he (or she) trust the gut feelings that suggest panic? Does he start swearing and thumping the controls? Well, if he does, chances are that he (and his passengers) will die so, instead, he trusts his expertise and, as calmly as he’s able, executes a series of well rehearsed actions in order to attempt to land the plane. He will rely on his expert programming to guide these actions, even when (and this is the crux of expertise) he finds himself in an unfamiliar situation – he can improvise.

So what’s the main difference here. First, expertise (the result of a lot of focused programming) allows the expert to focus on the situation at hand without major distraction. Second, it allows for effective action without the necessary intervention of the conscious mind. Third, it allows for a certain amount of ad libbing or improvisation. Last, it reduces the likelihood of disruption by ‘gut feelings’, that is, the expert programming takes over in a specific situation resulting in a greater likelihood of an effective outcome.

So, how do you propagate expertise and, consequently, the likelihood of expert decisions and actions? First, learn to distrust your gut feelings – anything that is strongly emotion based is suspect. Second, learn to pay focused attention, especially when you’re under pressure. This mindful attention will help you become proficient in remaining focused when you’re distracted and, just as importantly, to bring your focus back when it wanders. Third, figure out what’s important to you and learn to attend to these things. Last, remember that it takes a lot of focused attention, trial and error (and awareness of errors so you can learn objectively), appropriate feedback, and awareness of your cognitive and emotional states in order to achieve a level of expertise.

And all it requires is a couple of thousand hours of your time!

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