Experience Isn't Always the Best Teacher

Experience is great, but it's not the answer to every problem. Sometimes, the ingenuity of the novice or the person who looks at reality from an open, innovative, and flexible mind has a greater advantage.
Experience Isn't Always the Best Teacher

Last update: 02 September, 2022

When you have a problem, you usually turn to an expert, someone who supposedly knows more than you and is more experienced. Nevertheless, experience isn’t always the best teacher and it’s often not without its mistakes. In fact, in the field of psychology, we know that expertise or competence in any area of life involves multiple dimensions.

When it comes to solving a problem, obviously experience is important to a degree. However, so is cognitive flexibility. This means knowing how to adapt to changing situations as well as thinking and not acting on impulse or out of prejudice. In fact, nobody becomes a teacher for the mere fact of having had many experiences.

As a matter of fact, experience only comes when you’ve reflected on each experience and have also carried out an adequate self-examination. That said, occasionally, your mind might assume it knows everything for the simple fact that you’ve been in the same job for many years or you’ve reached a certain age.

You’re not more skillful just because you have more accumulated knowledge. You’re skillful when you react more effectively to difficulties and know how to make better use of your available skills.

A mind that’s active, curious, and oriented to continuous learning is a mind prepared for any challenge.

Man working and thinking that experience is not always the best teacher
Good or bad experiences will only be useful to us if we reflect on them and allow ourselves to learn something.

Why experience isn’t always the best teacher

Two sectors in which experience is both a value and an advantage are the health and the security forces fields. That’s because doctors, police officers, and guards often have to make quick assessments in their daily lives. They observe, analyze, and act by issuing a diagnosis or deciding whether or not to act.

Arizona State University (USA) conducted a study involving forensic experts who identified fingerprints. The research found that these experts sometimes made mistakes. Undoubtedly, something that could prove to be particularly serious in the face of a trial.

The same thing happens in the health sector. Another study conducted by the University of Tokyo (Japan) mentioned that radiologists make detection mistakes, regardless of their experience. This evidence aroused the curiosity of the scientific community. It seems that, while it’s true that performance improves over time, we must also consider that experience isn’t always the best teacher. Let’s see why.

The prevalence effect, a cognitive error

The prevalence effect demonstrates how experience can sometimes be a hindrance and not an advantage. For example, when you carry out the same tasks in your daily routine, you get used to the fact that certain events always give the same results. Therefore, you assume that certain causes-effects are invariable. This makes you automate your work.

However, every scenario can be dominated by subtleties, unforeseen events, and even chaos. The prevalence effect causes you to act without thinking, based only on the experiences of your past. Your mind becomes more rigid, less inquisitive, observant, and curious. This can lead you to make mistakes.

No one, not even the person with the greatest learning and knowledge, is exempt from making mistakes. However, we can all optimize our performance by applying a mindset oriented toward continuous learning, flexibility and curiosity.

Female worker pointing to herself with a lot of ego symbolizing that experience is not always the best teacher
We must avoid assuming that, due to our experience, we’re more competent than everyone else. Intellectual humility is key.

How flawless are the real experts?

Neither the leader with the longest experience directing work teams, nor the expert with the most degrees and doctorates, are exempt from making mistakes. However, when mistakes happen, something fractures their mental schemas. They ask themselves how the errors could possibly have happened. They thought their experience gave them invulnerability to failure and impermeability to error. It didn’t.

Wisdom always goes hand in hand with intellectual humility. Along with this quality, a series of psychological dimensions must be combined that add greater value and effectiveness to the accumulated experience. As we’ve already pointed out, experience is an advantage, but not the answer to every challenge and circumstance.

Let’s now look at the areas we should all develop.

1. Self-reflection and willingness to speculate

Self-reflection is the ability to act in a more thoughtful way and not be dominated by impulsiveness or automatic behavior. This quality helps you understand life as a continuous learning process in which you should be receptive to all stimulation, without taking any circumstances for granted.

Speculating about things allows you to better manage information, draw hypotheses, and analyze them in depth.

2. A flexible mind, the best kind of competence

People with a flexible approach are better able to face change and tolerate mistakes. They’re also oriented to constant learning and discovery.

If you believe that your experience is the answer to everything, you have an inflexible mind. It means you’re unable to see the nuances of every event and the complexity of every circumstance.

3. Avoid snap judgments

Perhaps the biggest problem that experience gives you is that you have a tendency to make too many snap judgments. You probably don’t even realize it, but as you see yourself as an expert in certain areas, your thinking becomes automated and biased. This is what the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman claims. He says that thinking fast produces absolute, not relative judgments.

You need to educate your thinking by slowing down its conclusions. Try and be more observant, patient, and curious. Broaden your perspectives instead of assuming you know it all. Remember, life is always capable of surprising you and catching you off guard.

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  • Growns, Bethany & Kukucka, Jeff. (2021). The Prevalence Effect in Fingerprint Identification: Match and Non‐Match Base‐Rates Impact Misses and False Alarms. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 35. 10.1002/acp.3800.
  • Nakashima, R., Watanabe, C., Maeda, E. et al. The effect of expert knowledge on medical search: medical experts have specialized abilities for detecting serious lesions. Psychological Research 79, 729–738 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-014-0616-y