A Taste for Mastery

Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Wray Herbert

Fans of the old British TV series The Avengers will remember the classic wine cellar “duel” scene. Foppish secret agent John Steed and villain Henry Boardman face off in a tasting of rare wines, each one-upping the other with his impressive expertise about vineyards and vintages. After some minutes of sparring, Steed summarily ends the contest with this pinpoint identification of a wine: “1909,” he states drily. “From the northern end of the vineyard.”

Even wine connoisseurs will laugh at this caricature. Nobody understands wines at that level of detail. But the bit is funny precisely because experts do in fact think of wines in much finer categories than the rest of us: Some truly know grape varieties, vineyards, and specific harvests, while others of us settle for much coarser categories, like red and white.

Why is that? Why do some people see nuance where others see gross oversimplification? I know, because they’re the experts—but that’s really not a helpful answer. What is going on in the expert mind when it slices and dices a corner of the world into fine-grained distinctions? What is the engine that drives nuanced thinking?

Psychologists have been studying thinking styles for some time, and one emerging idea is that such thinking is driven by emotions. Forget wine for a second, and think about something you are an expert on—beach volleyball, Alaskan politics, the early novels of Joseph Conrad, whatever. Chances are you don’t get paid to be an expert on this; it’s probably a hobby, a passion. With enough effort, you could probably make yourself an expert on something you don’t like, but why bother? Curiosity and interest not only drive mastery, they make it effortless.

Or at least that’s the theory, which psychologists Rachel Smallman and Neal Roese decided to test in their University of Illinois laboratory. They suspected that the act of liking actually molds the brain’s thinking, opening it to nuances that are unapparent to others. Put another way, preference and taste pave the way for more textured thinking. They ran this experiment to test the idea.

They started by artificially creating preferences in the lab, using hobo symbols. These are the crude symbols that hobos once scratched on to walls and trees to warn other hobos of dangers in particular neighborhoods. This one, for example, meant “unfriendly police here,” but the psychologists assumed that few people would know those meanings anymore. They showed volunteers a collection of these symbols, pairing them with either pleasant or unpleasant scenes. The idea was that they would learn preferences for some hobo symbols and aversion to others.

Then the volunteers sorted a deck of 20 cards, each card picturing one of the hobo symbols. They were told to sort the cards into “meaningful” categories of any size, and to label the categories. When the psychologists crunched the data, this is what they found: Those who had been conditioned to have positive feelings about the symbols sorted them into much finer categories than did the others. In other words, liking influenced thinking. What’s more, the volunteers were clearly guided by their emotions in sorting the symbols, labeling the piles with adjectives like “inspiring” and “ominous.”

These findings, reported in the December issue of Psychological Science,
may explain the power of hobbies. But more than that they sound a warning to those choosing jobs and careers. Hard work and mastery may give us a measure of satisfaction, but pleasure also drives mastery and expertise. There may be good psychology beneath that old saw: Do what you love.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at http://www.sciam.com/.


posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:28 AM

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