Expertise: A good old nature/nurture debate

Mirjam Neelen

Disclaimer 1: This blog is from Mirjam. Paul has read and commented on it but feels that this discussion is just about as relevant as discussing whether the area of a table is determined by its length or its width and that it’s not worth spending time and/or effort on the discussion. However, Mirjam feels that the discussion is still going strong and thus relevant from that perspective.

Previous blogs on expertise (1, 2) brought to the surface that there is quite some debate about expert performance, especially when it comes to the question: Is expertise a product of nature or nurture? In general, the nature/nurture debate is of course ancient history, however, the debate in the field of expertise is still going strong. Researchers disagree about the role of age, cognitive ability, intelligence, and traits such as personality and motivation in developing expertise.

Disclaimer 2: This debate is a minefield! It’s not easy to disentangle all the discussions which are very detailed and in-depth. This blog by no means pretends to be a complete overview. What it tries to do is to give an overview without getting stuck in the nitty gritty.


Let’s start with the nurture proponent, Mister Deliberate Practice aka Anders Ericsson. He states that some of his fellow researchers use too broad a definition of what expertise is and hence the discussion on nature versus nurture gets blurred.

For example, some researchers study children’s performance in the context of expertise and thus claim that these children are experts at something. Ericsson says this is inaccurate as in order to be an expert, the superiority of your performance needs to be consistent over time while children’s performance levels most likely change over time (e.g. peers will catch up and might match the performance level of the so-called “expert” child over time). A typical example is the soccer child born early in the year and who is, thus, usually bigger and stronger than the other kids born later in the year.

Another example that touches a sore point for Ericsson is Wai’s study on successful individuals, such as billionaires or CEOs. While Wai argues that billionaires can be viewed as “experts in making money” (which raises an interesting question if criminals who have not been caught can be considered experts along the same lines?), Ericsson claims that, although they’re special individuals, they can’t necessarily be considered experts as there’s no gold standard (the “gold standard” irony is discussed in Mirjam’s blog on Peak).

Detterman, Gabriel, and Ruthsatz describe Ericsson’s focus on deliberate practice as “absurd environmentalism” and argue that it’s very unlikely that anyone can become an expert in any domain as long as they put in enough time and effort. For example, if you’re born with a hip dysplasia, you’ll never be an expert ballerina, even if you “practice til you drop”. Lubinski and Simonton both throw non-environmental factors into the mix, such as interest, personality, and willingness to work. As you might have noticed, the topic is moving on to the nature proponents now.


According to Ericsson, age only plays a role in developing expertise in the way that the starting age relates to the amount of deliberate practice that an individual can accumulate. In contrast, Hambrick and colleagues suggest that there might be a critical period for acquiring complex skills, similar to acquiring language. They also discuss intelligence and cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, they don’t define either one clearly. In general, cognitive abilities refer to the mechanisms / cognitive processes we use to learn such as paying attention, reasoning, remembering, or problem-solving but in Hambrick et al’s publication, it’s not well-defined. Sometimes intelligence is referred to as IQ but Ericsson warns that it’s wrong to equate innate intelligence with IQ because IQ is basically some cognitive factor measured by IQ tests. Although that makes sense, we also know that IQ has shown to predict certain things, such as educational and occupational success, as well as job performance. So, with regards to expertise, is it about IQ or is it more about ability than anything else? And if that’s so, then does all ability start with cognition or? It’s all as clear as mud.

Another “nature” element is personality. Hambrick et al. state that personality is an important part of the expert puzzle. However, personality differences don’t appear to independently explain individual differences in performance; they only seem to explain why some people engage in deliberate practice more than others. Hmmm, this can’t be all there is to it. Ackerman explains that personality is about preferences for a certain kind of environment. For example, introverts might prefer solitary study while extraverts prefer to be in a group. Another aspect is behavioural repertoire, as in adaptability. Some individuals are resilient while others are more flexible in their abilities and skills to adapt their behaviour to their environment or context. It probably depends on the type of expertise if this is important. For a chess player, it’s probably OK to be more resilient, while the negotiator definitely needs the behavioural flexibility to reach expert performance.

Common sense?

What is clear now is that it doesn’t make much sense to choose an extreme on the nature/nurture question of expertise development. There are so many different types of experts and each type seems to require its own “mix” of factors, although a degree of deliberate practice seems to be absolutely necessary in all cases. This might require (cognitive) ability but also the willingness to engage in it. It’s not necessarily fun to give up time and endure endless practice so that might speak to personality and motivation, too. Also, many roles in organisations are not very well-defined with regard to required competencies and/or skills in the first place. As long as it’s not clear what expertise exactly is and what skills one needs to reach expert performance, it will be impossible to identify exactly what factors influence it.

From the perspective of expertise in the workplace, it also seems to make sense to use a slightly broader definition for expertise than Ericsson’s. Because, although Ericsson does include professionals in his list of possible experts, his examples of deliberate practice are mainly about specific skills, such as chess, playing the piano, or conducting heart surgery. However, there are many “business” professions, with less defined skills and hence, not so easy to practice deliberately.

Let’s return to Ackerman who states that “one would be well-advised to employ common sense when considering various claims of universal statements in the domain of expert and elite performance. (…) Statements that either genetic endowment or deliberate practice account for all variance in expert performance each violate a common sense interpretation of the vast array of data encountered in popular and scientific publications” (p 8). And that brings us back to the good old conclusion: Nature and nurture, just not sure how exactly.


Ackerman, P.L. (2014). Nonsense, common sense, and science of expert performance: Talent and individual differences. Intelligence, 45, 6-17

Detterman, D. K., Gabriel, L. T., & Ruthsatz, J. M. (1998). Absurd environmentalism. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 411–412

Ericsson, K.A., & Pool, R., Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. London: Penguin

Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Summing up hours of any type of practice versus identifying optimal practice activities: Comments on Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick (2015). Perspectives on Psychological Science11, 351–354. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K.A., (1993). The Role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406. Retrieved from

Hambrick, D.Z., Oswald, F.L., Altmann, E.M., Meinz, E.J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G., (2014). Deliberate Practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, 34-45

Lubinski, D. (2004). Introduction to the special section on cognitive abilities: 100 years after Spearman’s (1904) “‘general intelligence’, objectively determined and measured”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 96–111

Simonton, D. K. (1999). Talent and its development: An emergenic and epigenetic model. Psychological Review, 104, 66–89

Wai, J., (2014). Experts are born, then made: Combining prospective and retrospective longitudinal data shows that cognitive ability matters. Intelligence, 45, 74-80


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