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Too Hard for Science? Seeing If 10,000 Hours Make You an Expert

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Experiment Might Take Thousands of Volunteers and Decades of Effort

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Christopher Chabris, assistant professor of psychology at Union College, research affiliate of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and co-author of "The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us," out in paperback on June 7.

The idea: The concept that 10,000 hours of practice can make one an expert in a field — an idea developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers" — has become prevalent enough to prompt one-time commercial photographer Dan McLaughlin to quit his job and try and become a professional golfer. But which is more important for becoming an expert — practice or talent?

"The prevailing theory in cognitive psychology, going back to Adriaan de Groot, who studied chess grandmasters, and later to Anders Ericsson, who studied other domains such as music and sports, is that expertise is all a matter of how much one practices, and that there’s no such thing as a particular talent that will make it easier for someone to become an expert," Chabris says. "If that’s true, that’s a positive thing — there’s nothing holding me back from, say, becoming a professional basketball player."

"However, a lot of people certainly find this idea of hard to believe, and if you do talk with coaches who teach chess to kids, they do think some of them have more talent, and some have less," Chabris notes. "The practice theory clashes with intuition, and while scientists don’t rely on intuition but data, when intuition clashes with the data that much, perhaps more experiments are in order." Moreover, "the fact that people who are experts have practiced more than people who are novices doesn’t prove that the practice, by itself, caused the expertise."

The ideal experiment to address this question would have thousands of volunteers each spend 10,000 hours practicing a randomly assigned skill to see if they indeed become experts afterward. "The results could be very, very important," he says. "The results could really impact the whole way we think about education."

The problem: Recruiting a volunteer willing to practice a skill for 10,000 hours is a challenge unto itself. Enlisting thousands in a definitive experiment that accounted for as many of the myriad differences between people that might influence whether they become experts or not, would be even harder, not to mention potentially very expensive — getting, say, 2,000 volunteers to practice a skill for 10,000 hours at $10 per hour would cost $200 million, Chabris notes.

Randomly assigning volunteers might not go over so well either. "You’re volunteering 10,000 hours of your life, and imagine a situation where you’re not happy with what you’ve been assigned — ‘Congratulations, Mr. Smith, you’ve been selected to become a master purchasing manager,’" Chabris says.

Age is potentially a major confounding factor. "There are arguments that the younger you are, the more easily your brain soaks up skills, and I’m not sure in our society whether parents would really go along with randomly assigning kids to learn a skill," Chabris says. Other challenges would include how to judge whether a participant was an expert or not, and ensuring that the quality of teaching remained consistent for all volunteers.

The greatest concern might be in neglecting a potentially key contributing factor when analyzing whether talent or practice was more important. "You could look at 100 different elements — personality, cognitive ability, socioeconomic considerations, diet, genes and so on — but maybe there’s something you miss that made all the difference," Chabris says. Given the scale of an experiment such as this, it would be hard to try again and account for anything researchers missed the first time.

The solution? "As far as I can tell, the field is at an impasse," Chabris says. "On the one hand, you have Ericsson and his associates thinking they’ve proved their case and getting it presented in ‘Freakonomics‘ and other books as the gospel truth, and on the other you have people equally convinced that talent is key."

Still, there are domains where the dispute could be resolved, such as chess, "where you can measure levels of success with an objective rating system, and where there are fairly objective ways to evaluate whether a move is good or bad," Chabris says. In addition, "you can mitigate the extent to which the quality of instruction and coaching comes into play by developing manuals that teachers would follow to educate their chess students."

"I might search for schools where one could randomly assign students to a chess education program and other control conditions, and assess them extensively before and after," he says. "We might not get 10,000 hours, but we might be able to come close, for an imitation of the ideal experiment."

Image of Christopher Chabris from his Web page


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, e-mail me at

Follow Too Hard for Science? on Twitter by keeping track of the #2hard4sci hashtag.

About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 15 Comments

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  1. 1. John Emerson 2:49 pm 06/6/2011

    "…expertise is all a matter of how much one practices, and that there’s no such thing as a particular talent that will make it easier for someone to become an expert," Chabris says. "If that’s true, that’s a positive thing — there’s nothing holding me back from, say, becoming a professional basketball player."

    That’s as big a red herring as I’ve seen anywhere. The original statement was specifically about chess, possibly generalizable to other intellectual activities. It had nothing to do with height, strength, power, quickness, speed, or any of the other qualities required by BB players. (Since 1960 there have been 5 NBA players 5’7" or shorter who played more than one season. Presumably they did put their 10,000 hours in, but I doubt that they were also slow and lacking in leaping ability).

    Gimmicky kinds of overstatement seem characteristic of psychologists trying to popularize their work (see "Psychology Today"). I think that he overstated or misstated the significance of his "gorilla" video too.

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  2. 2. toomepuu 3:35 pm 06/6/2011

    Chabris spouts total nonsense. There are obvious physical differences between individuals that place clear limits on the level of expertise they can acquire in endeavors requiring physical skills. There are even more obvious differences in the neural efficiency of the brain (also known as intelligence) that set clear limits on intellectual achievements of various individuals. There is no need to carry out a 10,000-hour experiment. Different outcomes can be predicted with simple tests and verified conclusively by a few hundred hours of training.

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  3. 3. denysYeo 5:27 pm 06/6/2011

    I think the 10,000 hour "model" is over simplistic. I suspect that if 1000 "randomly" selected people practiced a skill or activity for 10,000 hours their performance would not be homogeneous. When I was a runner I trained for about 10 hours a week; my friend trained for maybe 5 hours a week. In a race he was always in front of me. 10,000 hours training (?) he would still have been in front of me.

    Overall, talent is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to produce an outstanding performance in a specific area of human activity.

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  4. 4. TTLG 12:23 am 06/7/2011

    I don’t see how this should be so hard to study. According to this hypothesis, five years of 40-hour work weeks in a particular job or profession should make anyone a "master". If my own experience is any guide, a look at people at this stage of their careers will show considerable variation in performance and very few could be considered masters unless a very low standard is set for qualifying as such. It seems to me that putting in the time is clearly not the only requirement for becoming a master at something. Talent or possibly intensity of effort will also have a major effect.

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  5. 5. xingo 4:52 am 06/7/2011

    One area to research would be the armed forces – air-force, navy, army – all take on young people with little skills and train them to a high degree in various specialities including highly technical ones.

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  6. 6. ralphSci 11:26 am 06/7/2011

    Amazing. Apparently no one here, including Mr. Chabris, has actually read what Anders Ericsson has written.
    First, the "10,000 hours" is an approximation based on studies by a number of researchers of a number of fields of expertise, not just chess. Next, Ericsson specifically states that physical attributes such as height necessary for certain sports is not affected by practice. In addition, simply "doing something" for 10,000 hours won’t cut it. What’s known as "active learning" or "deliberate practice" is necessary, that is, in order to achieve recognized expertise in a field, whether measured or judged by other experts, it’s necessary to consciously work at getting better. There’s lots more to it; here’s a link to a pdf of a paper presented by Ericsson on expertise which goes into much greater depth, including studies of child prodigies, the differences in perceptual ability between skilled performers and non-experts, and additional info on how to best train:

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  7. 7. kenapercu 10:45 pm 06/7/2011

    10,000 hours won’t make you an expert if the definition of expert isn’t something that can be agreed upon. For example, there isn’t a universal agreement on the definition of an excellent teacher. Kind of like "I know it when I see it" phrase was famously used by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). It is easier to define expert the easier the task, i.e., driving a stick shift car versus a school bus driver delivering students to school, safely, on-time, and ready to learn. Once you get past grinding gears and into expert performance it isn’t just hours spent at a skill, but everything a person brings to the task. Their sense of humor, their sense of right and wrong, their satisfaction with a job well done, and their unique mixture of hubris and humility–all of these will result in different results for different persons even if they all spend 10,000 hours becoming an expert.

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  8. 8. Pizzalino 4:45 am 06/8/2011

    if you perform this experement in a Chinese high school, perhaps it works, because Chinese high school students are assigned many exercises every day. They repeat do the exercises of various types untill they become very skillful in many examinations and finally in "Gao Kao"–the entrance examination of collages which is a cruel selective examination to determine who can go to college.

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  9. 9. Cromulent 4:23 pm 06/8/2011

    What this kerfuffle proves is that the sure way to science fame and fortune is to state provocative theories that are too time consuming and expensive to test. You’re never wrong!

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  10. 10. Squeedle 6:28 pm 06/8/2011

    In the US people place far too much emphasis on nature vs. nurture for skills. You’re basically encouraged to give up unless you show promise early in life in a particular skill, especially artistic or physical skills such as music or sports.

    In other cultures such as India there is a general acceptance of such a thing as natural talent, but it is believed that talent is nothing compared to proper pedagogy and many long hours of good practice. However, it’s considered best to start as early as possible. My tabla teacher, who is world class, did not start playing until age 21. He told me he believed that for time, all it really took was a full year of devoting the vast majority of one’s waking hours to become highly proficient in the particular skill desired.

    My martial arts instructor also said many times, "practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect."

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  11. 11. dubina 2:50 am 06/9/2011

    MorganLee: Chess ability is a matter of building a huge library of chunks (and templates). This is all about overlearning and as the paper shows, the relation between intelligence and chess playing ability is negative for some groups. I assume you understand that "negative" means that the lower IQ players are statistically better than the higher IQ players. Chess ability results from focused practice. That is not the same thing as intelligence and has absolutely NOTHING to do with the secular gains in IQ.

    Does chess need intelligence? — A study with young chess players
    Merim Bilalic, Peter McLeod, Fernand Gobet
    Intelligence, 2006

    Our results highlight how difficult it is to find an unambiguous association between intelligence and chess skill. When we tested the whole sample of children, some of whom had just recently started to play chess, we found a moderately positive correlation between intelligence and chess skill thus confirming some previous studies (e.g., Horgan & Morgan, 1990; Frydman & Lynn, 1992). But when we examined the role of intelligence among highly skilled young chess players we found not only the same absence of the association between intelligence and chess skill that is usually reported among adult chess players (e.g., Cranberg & Albert, 1988; Djakow et al, 1927; Doll & Mayr, 1988; Ellis, 1973; Grabner et al., 2006; Unterrainer et al., 2006; Waters et al., 2003), but also that smarter children had actually achieved a lower level of chess skill. This unexpected negative association between intelligence and chess skill is partly the consequence of the different chess skill measures used for the whole sample and the elite subsample. When the chess skill measures were used instead of chess rating in the elite subsample, the association between chess skill measures and intelligence was not negative. But, nevertheless, the association was nonexistent which implies that intelligence does not have a major impact on the chess skill of very good young chess players. The unexpected results in the elite subsample can be explained by considering practice.

    While more intelligent children seemed to spend more time on chess than their less intelligent peers (see Table 1), this was not the case in the elite subsample – more intelligent children in the elite subsample invested less time in chess. Since practice is by far the best predictor of chess rating, it can be understood why intelligence had a negative association with chess rating.

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  12. 12. bguiled 12:15 pm 06/9/2011

    I’ve been studying the traditional karate way for 16+ years, teaching for 14. Each student brings gifts – things they do well right away – but these are a small percentage of their overall ability. Two things must be in place for them to reach mastery: the aims and the steps to reach this must be clear, and successful results must inform and teach what’s less able and missing.

    For the former, the example of learning handwriting is apt: beginners print disconnected capital letters, then disconnected, more rounded lower case, then flowing cursive script, with mastery in calligraphy, if they go that far. Students do better when they see this progression from the start, and when they understand that there’s no leapfrogging the perfection required at each step if they’re to reach the mature expression. They may try the advanced forms, with crude hand, but their focus and honest assessments of ability must be on where they’re at on the path.

    Students must also see clearly what’s best in their efforts, and in other students, to weave their eventual mastery from the strongest threads. For example, if their left hand does an action better than the right, then the left hand teaches. Where another student shines at some small part, then that becomes the model and teacher. This is a positive, joyful way to progress. Without that joy, mastery is moot. With it, mastery is inevitable, simply by continuing.

    This is all very simple, but working out a curriculum and teaching method that enables every step of the way is challenging. Because so much teaching is so bad, the best students are either naturals at the subject at hand or they can decode what’s required, through a mess of poor instruction, to get to the basic aims and structure of the course, then use these instrinsic guides to teach themselves. Both can lead to mastery.

    Our schooling needs to focus more on this latter, but crappy teachers will prevail, I expect, because they hang onto their jobs for all kinds of reasons, many not related at all to helping their students find the joyful road to mastery.

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  13. 13. 6:00 am 06/20/2011

    I think of famed artist Marcel duChamp, who decided, mid-career, to abandon art and try to become a chess master — with limited success. You can see almost all his works in one place — the Philadelphia Museum of art. This is because his devotion to chess limited his artistic output.

    This isn’t just any artist — he was a creative force behind a lot of early 20th-century art innovation. He was, therefore, more of a philosopher of art than an artist. Did the world lose something because of this?

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  14. 14. znmeb 1:53 pm 07/1/2011

    The 10,000 hour theory is hogwash. It depends not only on how many hours you put in, but on how old you are when you start and how focused those hours are. It’s ludicrous to think, for example, that a 45-year-old man could put in five years of 40-hour weeks, 10,000 hours, and become a professional basketball player.

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  15. 15. verdai 8:00 pm 07/7/2011

    this is not a level playing field.
    nor are we equals in the infinities.

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