Dangers of Cognitive Entrenchment

plane landed in water

Dangers of Cognitive Entrenchment

Cognitive entrenchment is the act of experienced groups becoming rigid under pressure and regressing to what they know best. Most of us suffer from it. For example, when experienced accountants were asked in a study to use a new tax law for deductions, they did worse than novices.  Novices perform better than experts when the rules are changed. Why?  Because of cognitive entrenchment.

One great example of “cognitive flexibility”—the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains (the opposite of cognitive entrenchment) – was pilot Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”), who with co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, guided US Airways flight 320 to land in the Hudson River. Sully was an expert. He had 19,000 hours of flying under his belt.  His engines lost power, and he and Skiles started working the checklist.  Air traffic control advised him to turn back to LaGuardia. Sully exhibited the rare skill of cognitive flexibility that few experts do.  If Sully had followed the rules and control’s advice, he would have crashed.  

By now, you’ve all heard that 10,000 hours is the magic number that makes someone an expert.  But in the new book Range, David Epstein uncovers significant evidence that the 10,000-hour rule does not always hold up.

Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and The 10,000 Rule

David Epstein begins his book by sharing two stories about elite athletes with very different trajectories, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger Woods was groomed to be a golfer from the time he was very young.  By the age of 4, Tiger Woods’ father was dropping him off at the golf course. At eight, he beat his father for the first time. He was already famous by the time he started Stanford at age 18. The Tiger example is often held up as proof of the 10,000 rule. But Epstein contrasts Tiger’s story with Roger Federer’s, and the contrast could not be stronger. 

As a child, Federer dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, and soccer,  ‘I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved.’ He was encouraged to play a wide variety of sports. His mother taught tennis, but she decided against working with him.  He didn’t actually start playing tennis until he was in his teens.

What is going on?

When behavioral economists and psychologists started tackling this question, they came across some surprising findings.  What they discovered is that the 10,000-hour rule depends on the nature of the activity itself. “There are domains in which massive amounts of narrow practice make for grandmaster-like intuition.  Like golfers, surgeons improve with the repetition of the same procedure. Accountants and bridge and poker players develop accurate intuition through repetitive experience.  

But there are other domains, like tennis, that are less predictable and require players to be more adaptable.  In those domains, experience can be a liability. In 2009, “psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein co-authored a paper in which they contended that narrow experience makes for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.”  

So, how do you avoid cognitive entrenchment? 

Experts advise the opposite of the strict version of the “10,000 hours” school of thought: vary challenges within a domain drastically and insist on having 1 foot outside your world. In our customer experience consulting practice, we recommend people to step out of their comfort zone and try different things: listen to a different kind of music, try a new restaurant, take a new route on the way to work, try to use your computer mouse with your non-dominant hand. And for the bravest: switch from iOS to Android or the other way around. 


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