SCIENCE
10/31/2015 07:00 am ET

How Becoming An Expert Can Make You Closed-Minded

Beware of this major downside to acquiring expertise.
Todor Tsvetkov via Getty Images

What are you an expert in? Whether it's politics, chemistry or playing an instrument, a new study finds there's one major downside to having in-depth knowledge of a certain subject.

Research from Loyola University of Chicago suggests that being an expert can make you more closed-minded -- and therefore less creative -- in your thinking. The study found that people who perceive themselves to be experts tend to be less open to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. 

The findings illustrate what's known as the "earned dogmatism" effect -- the tendency to think in a more closed-minded, or dogmatic, way when we consider ourselves to be an expert. 

"For example, if an individual is told that they performed really well on a test of their political knowledge, they temporarily become more dogmatic in their approach to politics," Dr. Victor Otatti, a professor of psychology at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "When individuals perceive themselves to be an expert, they feel that they have 'earned' the privilege of thinking and behaving in a more dogmatic manner."

In a series of experiments, Ottati and his colleagues manipulated participants into feeling either like experts or novices in a given area (for instance, politics) by asking them either very easy or very difficult questions about that topic.

Then, the researchers used various methods of testing the participants' thinking styles by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as "I am open to considering other political viewpoints."

They found that the participants who were made to feel like experts were more likely to exhibit a closed-minded thinking style. 

The researchers concluded that when we take on the role of an "expert," we tend to think and act in a way that we feel is consistent with the social expectations of that role.

"In our society, we tolerate more forceful and dogmatic expressions of opinion when the speaker is an expert than when the speaker is a novice," Ottati said. "So, when the situation makes us feel like we are an 'expert,' it activates these role expectations in our mind, and we feel more entitled to think in a dogmatic manner -- in other words, we feel more entitled to dismiss, ignore, or disparage opinions and viewpoints that differ from our own opinion."

The findings suggest that the best way to be an expert is to work towards achieving mastery while reminding ourselves of how much we still don't know. 

"It would be useful," Ottati adds, "for experts to read some of the literature regarding 'intellectual humility.'"

The study was published in the November 2015 edition of the Journal of Social Experimental Psychology.

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