Expertise and Problem Solving, General or Specialized?

chessOne of the interesting ongoing debates in the expertise literature is whether general or specialized problem-solving strategies are more effective.  It’s an important question with implications for how skills are taught — most importantly, thinking. 

General problem-solving strategies are context-independent. For example, if Charley the policeman is taught the general strategy for safely disarming criminals, then he should be able to apply it to a general range of situations in which he faces armed criminals.  The general strategy, this argument goes, produces generally applicable problem-solving ability.

On the other hand, with his general strategy for disarming criminals, Charley may in fact be fairly effective– unless and until he encounters a specific situation that trumps his general ability. He may, for example, be expert at taking away a criminal’s handgun — but what happens if he encounters a criminal with another gun tucked in the back of his pants and a knife concealed in his sock?  If Charley never faced or trained for that situation (or one very much like it), he may be in for more than his problem-solving strategy can handle.

The journal Cognitive Science has a new study that backs up the argument for specialization, albeit with a less exciting example than disarming criminals. Expert chess players, specialized in different openings, were asked to recall positions and solve problems within and outside their area of specialization. All of the players’ general expertise was at roughly the same level. 

The results: players performed significantly better in their area of specialization, but not only better — they actually played over their own heads at the level of chess players with much better general skills. In other words, specialization trumped general problem solving and elevated the players’ level of play. 

The takeaway: when figuring out how to tackle a problem, knowledge derived from familiarity with that problem is more important than general problem-solving strategies. The key is memory. We rely on memory of specific experiences to craft solutions to new problems.  If you have expert general ability, but lack context-specific memory, you’re only as effective as general ability will allow – and if you’re Charley, that might not be good enough.

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One response to “Expertise and Problem Solving, General or Specialized?

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