Marketing Sep 1, 2021
Expertise Can Be a Buzzkill
Becoming a subject-matter expert could dim your passion for the things you love.
If you’re a budding wine connoisseur, you might presume that the best way to experience joy from your hobby would be a wine-tasting course—surely building your expertise will allow you to savor every sip more profoundly.
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In fact, just the opposite can happen, according to new research from the Kellogg School. Across several studies, both experimental and observational, researchers found that experts exhibit less emotionally charged reactions than novices, suggesting that numbness can be produced as an unexpected downside of mastery.
“There’s a presumption that expertise unlocks our emotional response to a task or activity,” says Loran Nordgren, a professor of management and organizations. “The irony is that in pursuing your passion, it might inhibit your emotional response.”
That’s an important caveat to the traditional view of knowledge as an unfettered good.
“There’s a lot of research talking about all the positive elements of expertise,” says Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing. “We were drawn to the idea that, at least in some cases, expertise might be accompanied by some hidden costs.”
Novices Have All the Feels
Nordgren and Rucker, in collaboration with Matthew D. Rocklage of the University of Massachusetts Boston, began by examining how experts and novices reacted to movies. They drew on 13 years of data from Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates audience reviews alongside those from professional film critics.
The researchers analyzed these reviews using the Evaluative Lexicon (EL), a computational tool developed by Rocklage that measures the emotionality of language—not just whether words express positive or negative feelings, but rather how emotionally charged those feelings are.
“Language can reveal meaningful differences within emotion,” Nordgren explains: to say you “loved” something suggests a deeper emotional reaction than to say it was “perfect,” though both words are positive.
The EL averages the emotion words within a given text and generates a numerical score of emotionality for the full text from zero to nine: a review that contains a supercharged “loved” (8.26) and a less forceful “enjoyable” (6.58) results in an average score of 7.42.
Expert movie critics expressed less emotionality than novices, the researchers found. Reviews from professional critics received EL scores 0.126 points lower than those written by average Joes and Janes. This pattern held true when controlling for a variety of factors, including the length of the reviews, the year the film was released, and how positive or negative the reviews were.
“There might be some cases where you would experience more emotion by setting aside all of that cognitive machinery.”
— Derek Rucker
In a later study, the researchers applied the same method to reviews on Cellar Tracker and Beer Advocate, sites where users log tasting notes for wine and beer. Here, the researchers tracked the EL score of tasting notes from users over time to see how they changed. They found that as users gained more knowledge, the emotional wallop of their reviews declined. Each additional wine or beer a user tasted resulted in a decrease in the emotionality of their notes—regardless of whether they liked or disliked the beverage overall.
Why does this happen? One of the benefits of expertise is that it provides a cognitive structure and an architecture to analyze information. This structure can be helpful, for example, by giving us similar criteria to use in evaluations and thus producing consistent evaluations that aren’t influenced by emotion. However, as people apply this cognitive structure, it changes the nature of their experience. For example, a sumptuous wine is no longer just a wine to enjoy, but one to be dissected, analyzed, and compared with others on its quality.
Gain Knowledge, Lose Emotionality
In another study, the researchers wanted to see whether the same loss of emotion would take place among novices who had taken even a small step toward expertise. To test the idea, they recruited 601 online participants and asked them to evaluate photographs.
Participants were shown six photos and instructed to describe each using two to four adjectives from a list of 42 terms ranging in emotionality.
Then, half the participants took a minicourse on photography that introduced them to concepts such as composition, color, and theme. The other half learned the fundamentals of something completely unrelated: wine tasting.
After completing these minicourses, participants saw six new images and selected adjectives to describe them. They also rated to what extent they had evaluated the second set of images “as an expert might,” a question that allowed the researchers to assess whether participants believed they were actually using the knowledge they gained from the photography course.
Among participants who took the photography minicourse and applied their newfound expertise, emotionality declined from the first photo-review task to the second: they selected adjectives that were, on average, roughly 0.1 points lower in emotionality.
Not so for participants who took the wine-tasting course. Their emotionality scores stayed almost exactly the same across the two tasks. Moreover, participants who took the photography course but said they didn’t apply that knowledge also maintained a consistent level of emotionality across both photo evaluations. All of this suggests that it is the application of knowledge that numbs the experience of emotion.
Helping Experts Feel
Once numbed by expertise, are experts numbed forever?
Based on the previous study, the researchers didn’t think so—after all, only participants who said they actually applied their knowledge saw a decrease in emotionality, suggesting it’s using, not merely having, expertise that creates numbness.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 196 new online participants and asked them to evaluate 10 photos by selecting adjectives from a list. Half the participants (the control group) were given very little guidance about how to evaluate the photos, while the other half were asked to focus specifically on any feelings the images elicited. Then, participants rated how much they considered themselves experts in photography.
In the control group, the expertise effect emerged once more: more knowledgeable participants selected less emotional adjectives to describe the images than did novices. But among participants who’d been specifically asked to focus on feelings, the disparity went away—experts and novices selected equally emotional words. In other words, when experts were asked to focus on emotions as opposed to expertise, their numbness receded and their ability to feel returned.
The Unexpected Perks of Ignorance
For Rucker, the research offers “new insight on what it might mean to be an expert.”
It’s important for experts and novices alike to understand that knowing more may make it harder for them to connect with the passion they started with. “There might be some cases where you would experience more emotion by setting aside all of that cognitive machinery,” he says.
But on the bright side, the research also highlights “the joys of being a novice,” Nordgren adds. “If you enjoy movies or literature, the path to an enriched emotional experience isn’t necessarily deeper analytic scrutiny of those experiences. In some sense, the person who just understands things in an immediate, sensory way can often get the most joy and value from it.”
It’s something he’s tried to put in practice himself, as he allows himself to skip out on books or articles about things he likes. He explains, “I just want to experience it the way I’m experiencing it now. I don’t have to apply an analytic mindset. It’s a nice cure for the status anxiety that comes from being a newbie.”
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Rocklage, Matthew, Derek Rucker, and Loran Nordgren. 2021. “Emotionally Numb: Expertise Dulls Consumer Experience.” Journal of Consumer Research.
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