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The Dark Side of Expertise: Cognitive Entrenchment

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, "we've always done it this way." - Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

We've probably all come across the quote above from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. A U.S. Naval Officer and an early computer programmer, Hopper was a pioneer for many reasons. She vehemently believed in not getting stuck in our views, even displaying a clock that turns counter-clockwise to reinforce approaches from the past can be changed in the future. Clearly, she was aware of the danger of cognitive entrenchment.


Cognitive entrenchment is defined as having a high level of stability in one’s schema, that is; one’s cognitive framework. This entrenchment appears to stem from increasing expertise. That is to say, as you develop greater expertise in an area, you have the potential to become more entrenched - or stuck - in your thinking.


Being cognitively entrenched has numerous potential negative consequences. It can restrict;

  • problem solving – you become stuck or fixated

  • adaptability – you struggle in new or different situations

  • creativity – idea generation may increase, but radical ideas become limited

Thus, we can observe a trade-off between expertise and flexibility in one’s thinking. The more knowledge we gather in a particular topic, the greater the possibility of becoming entrenched and cognitively inflexible. Crucially however, the relationship between expertise and cognitive entrenchment can be attenuated. Dane (2010) proposed that this association can be circumvented through engaging in a dynamic environment and paying attention to outside domain tasks.


Engaging in a dynamic environment includes being open to change, doubting views and approaches, and updating your beliefs based on new evidence. Indeed, fostering optimal levels of doubt may be critical. Too much may reduce conviction. However, sufficient doubt can be a key tool in overcoming entrenchment:


"Researchers argue that doubt helps generate new perspectives by reducing habitual behavior, fostering creativity, and motivating a search for discovery. Indeed, some have pointed to doubt as a critical feature of "wisdom". As suggested here, doubt arises when one's beliefs about cause-and effect relationships within a domain are brought into question, which provokes a need for updating or restructuring these beliefs. To the extent this updating occurs at the schematic level, it represents a reduction in entrenchment."

Dane, E. (2010). Reconsidering the trade-off between expertise and flexibility: A cognitive entrenchment perspective. Academy of Management Review, 35(4), 579-603.


Just as we discussed in the last post about changing our minds, here is more evidence that it is our responsibility to doubt our approaches and to be open to evidence that both supports or negates our views.


Paying attention to outside domain tasks has otherwise been described as having one foot outside your world by David Epstein in Range. This book provides countless examples of how generalist thinking, which includes connecting thinking across domains, provides advantages over specialists. Epstein argues we need to have cognitive flexibility – the ability to transfer knowledge between domains - and can achieve this with lateral thinking.

“Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960's for the re-imagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses.” - David Epstein, Range

Some of his high-profile examples include Charles Darwin (described as a lateral thinking integrator), Lin-Manuel Miranda (has been quoted saying "I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now"), and Gunpei Yokoi (transformed Nintendo by creating portable video games for commuters - see below).



Eating Humble Pie

While we all seek expertise, the threat of cognitive entrenchment casts a shadow over this desire. Mantras around staying humble and learning from others may seem like buzz words, however, they may in fact play a role in attenuating the link between expertise and inflexible thinking.


“[O]ne has to unlearn what one has learned, refrain from doing what has been successful, and keep in perspective what one has achieved. Having a piece of the humble pie and the mindset to continually learn new practices will help our knowledge experts go farther and be more resilient in today’s uncertain world.”

Trinh, M. P. (2019). Overcoming the Shadow of Expertise: How Humility and Learning Goal Orientation Help Knowledge Leaders Become More Flexible. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2505.


Tips for Avoiding Cognitive Entrenchment

As I discussed on the Pacey Performance Podcast, changing environments can present new challenges and the need to rethink your prior approaches in their specific context. When working across different sports, you do not have the history to be able to say "we've always done it this way"! Yet, it does not necessarily need to be a new sport: different age groups, genders, teams or organisations, and regions, can all present different environments that help to avoid becoming entrenched in your thinking.


Beyond changing your setting, here are some more tips you can use to develop cognitive flexibility, adaptability, and lateral thinking:

  • Frequently ask yourself "what if...?". This can be for any topic; scheduling, nutrition, training load, periodisation, injury risk etc. What if you did things differently and didn't use what has always/most recently been done as a given.

  • Argue the opposing view of a belief you hold with yourself, a friend, or a colleague. Seeing an argument from a different perspective can help you to foster doubt and to consider restructuring your beliefs.

  • Talk to people from other sports to learn about the challenges they face and how they approach them. Use the myriad of blogs, podcasts and articles available to learn from different problems and the creativity used to overcome them.

  • Consume information and ideas from other realms altogether and reflect on how they might translate into your own field or setting.

  • Try something new. Don't just seek to develop your expertise in one specialism, even if you do not become an expert, new skills and experiences can help you connect and appreciate others (e.g., learning a data coding language is a steep learning curve but can give you a better understanding of data structure and cleaning, as well as helping you collaborate with data scientists even if you never master it yourself).