Becoming an Expert: Moving from Conscious to Automatic Processes

How bad habits form while mastering a skill

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

The more we perform a task, the quicker we become at it. As Dr. Vishton explains, though, this is not always a good thing.

Golfer swing
Through continued practice of a new skill, mechanization of thought begins to make the task automatic without much thought given to it. Photo by Tony Bowler

Achieving Expertise

As you practice some endeavor—whatever it is you choose to become an expert at—you’ll naturally gather information and develop neural circuits to process that information. Initially, this will likely be done in a conscious fashion

Cognitive scientists have found evidence for something they call Einstellung. This German word literally means setting or attitude, but to brain researchers it’s usually defined as mechanization of thought. 

Imagine you have an empty five-gallon bucket, an empty three-gallon bucket, and an infinite supply of water. How can you use these two buckets to measure exactly four gallons of water? This type of problem was made famous in the movie Die Hard 3.

Here’s one of many ways to solve the problem. First, fill the five-gallon bucket. Pour three gallons from the five gallon into the three-gallon bucket. Empty that three-gallon bucket. 

Note that there are now two gallons left in the five-gallon bucket. Pour these two gallons into the three-gallon bucket, leaving the five-gallon bucket empty. 

Next, fill the five-gallon bucket up, all the way to the top. Use it to top off your three-gallon bucket—note that you will remove exactly one gallon from the five-gallon bucket to do this, leaving five minus one equals four—done.

Expertise and Mental Flexibility

If you were given a long series of these problems, you would soon become an expert at this type of fluid measure task. When a researcher gives participants several dozen problems that can all be solved in basically the same way, two things happen. 

First, the participants become an expert quickly. They might not even be able to articulate the trick that they’re using—the thing that all of those problems have in common—but their brains will discover it. 

Second, if you give these participants a new problem that can’t be solved with this same technique, then they’re going to be terrible at solving it. In some studies, these very experienced participants are actually worse at solving the problems than people who’ve had no practice at all.

When you start to learn a new skill, you bring tremendous mental flexibility to that endeavor. It’s one of the hallmarks of the human brain to find relationships between different sources of information. As we become more skilled, however, we get both faster and less flexible. 

Why Guidance Matters

At the beginning of your learning, it’s really helpful to have an instructor to nudge you in the right direction, keep you focused on sources of information that are most important, and keep distinctive biases you have in your initial performance from becoming problematic.

If you’re learning to identify various species of birds on your own, for example, you’ll focus on details that seem relevant to the task. You’ll look at the color of their feathers, listen to the sound of their song, and examine the shape of their beak. As you practice focusing on these details over and over, the process will become more automatic. 

However, if you were guided by an expert, he or she would have noted that you’d left out two critical details that are, ironically, often most useful for identifying the birds: behavior and group interaction. The details of a bird’s plumage are critical to identifying the species, but experts only use that information after they’ve used other information about size, shape, and behavior to narrow it down to a few possibilities.

When you’re still in the early stages of learning how to do a task, changing the way you perform it is relatively easy. Your control of the task is still operating at a very conscious level, so you can easily choose to focus on another source of information.

Once you’ve practiced the task for many hours, weeks, and months, the processing will develop to make it more efficient but less flexible in terms of the information sources that you chose at the beginning. Musicians and athletes often describe similar stories in developing expertise. While fully self-taught musicians exist, some of them develop bad habits early on in their learning. 

Unlearning those consciously controlled bad habits can be tremendously difficult. Once the brain has settled into an automated, focal activation method for achieving the current best level of performance, reorganizing it can be quite difficult.

Therefore, having an expert’s guidance in these early stages of the learning process will help prevent bad habits from forming and also help you become more efficient.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.