Sunday, February 21, 2010
The power of context
Here is an excerpt from Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how.
De Groot, who was born in 1914, was a Dutch psychologist who played chess in his spare time. He experienced his own version of the holy shit effect when a handful of players from his chess club, people just like him in age, experience, and background, nevertheless were able to perform superhuman feats of chess mastery. These were the sort of T.Rex players who could casually destroy ten opponents at once, blindfolded. Like Anders Ericsson decades later, de Groot puzzled over his losses, which led him to ask what exactly made these guys so great. At the time the scientific wisdom on the issue was unquestioned. It held that the best players possessed photographic memories that they used to absorb information and plan strategies. Master players succeeded, the theory went, because they were endowed with the cognitive equivalent of cannons, while the rest of us made do with popguns. But de Groot didn't buy this theory; he wanted to find out more.
To investigate, he set up an experiment involving both master players and more ordinary ones. De Groot placed chess pieces into positions from a real game, gave players a five-second glimpse of the board, and then tested their recall. The results were what one might expect. The master players recalled the pieces and arrangements four to five times better than the ordinary players did. (World-class players neared 100 percent recall.)
Then de Groot did something clever. Instead of using patterns from a real chess game, he set the chess pieces in a random arrangement and reran the test. Suddenly the masters' advantage vanished. They scored no better than lesser players; in one case, a master chess player did worse than a novice. the master players didn't have photographic memories; when the game stopped resembling chess, their skills evaporated.
De Groot went on to show that in the first test, the masters were not seeing individual chess pieces but recognizing patterns. Where novices saw a scattered alphabet of individual piecs, masters were grouping those 'letters' into the chess equivalent of words, sentences and paragraphs. When the pieces became random, the masters were lost - not because they suddenly became dumber but because their grouping strategy was suddenly useless. The holy shit effect vanished. The difference between chess T. Rexes and ordinary players was not the difference between a cannon and popgun. It was a difference of organization, the difference between someone who understood a language and someone who didn't. Or, to put it another way, the difference between an experienced baseball fan (who can take in a game with an ascertaining glance - runner on third, two out, bottom of the seventh inning) adn the same fan at his first cricket match (who spends the game squinting baffedly). Skill consists of identifying important elements and grouping them into a meaningful framework. The name psychologists use for such organization is chunking.
Attributing intelligence to a natural ability is a far too simplistic explanation, and equally insulting to those who work so hard to achieve greatness.
Disclaimer: The Talent Code is a schizophrenic book. Please be careful: the first and last third of the book are phenominal - but the middle third is absolutely crap. For some reason, Coyle ends up falling in love with KIPP (knowledge is power program) schools - even though it is common knowledge that KIPP is the equivalent of military boot camp for poor children of colour.