How Experience Can Hinder Critical Thinking
Critically thinking about the "fallacy" of experience.
Posted Jan 26, 2021
As I imagine might be the case for many families out there, an older member of my extended family likes to pride themselves on how much they know and their lack of both schooling and reading — citing life as their primary educator. I heard a lot of this over the Christmas break; but, as this individual is in their 70s, I decided to hold my tongue for the sake of harmony during the festive season. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about this standpoint in light of critical thinking and how it is conducted.
Specifically, the standpoint in question is that life experience is the best teacher; and that, essentially, a more mature individual — with rich life experiences — is more knowledgeable than someone in their 20s or 30s, regardless of education level. Of course, just because someone went to college and got a bunch of paperwork, doesn’t mean they’re a critical thinker — indeed, the lack of critical thinking among individuals leaving third-level education has been a concern in the field for a number of years. Likewise, experience can be a great teacher and, in reality, everything we learn is through experience — but over-reliance on experience is a big mistake (particularly if it's lacking corroboration from established evidence), mainly because we often confuse experience for expertise.
Though experience is the critical component of expertise, the latter is reserved for domain-specific tasks; and just because an individual is an expert in one domain does not guarantee expertise in another, no matter how experienced they feel themselves to be in it. Consideration of the Dunning-Kruger effect is useful here for elaborating on the mechanics behind this concept. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a bias wherein, relevant to this discussion, one with low ability on a task or little knowledge in an area overestimates their abilities or knowledge in that area; see Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Furthermore, experience is often found to be unrelated to the accuracy of expert judgments and is sometimes negatively correlated with accuracy (Goldberg, 1990; Hammond, 1996; Kahneman, 2011; Stewart et al., 1992). This may be a result of overconfidence (Kahneman, 2011) or simply a result of large amounts of experience in doing something(s) wrong (Hammond, 1996).
The latter postulation was also used to explain another relevant example from one of my first posts on this blog, where I wrote about a study that a colleague and I conducted with a group of mature students taking a critical thinking module (mean age of 42). Though they achieved significantly higher gains in critical thinking in comparison to more "traditional" students (i.e. 18-22 year-olds), their critical thinking ability scores were significantly lower than those of traditional students at baseline (Dwyer & Walsh, 2019); thus debunking, to some extent, the concept of "life" experience being a driving force, in this respect.
Another problem with relying on experience is its personalised nature. For example, it can be argued that all it really amounts to is anecdotal evidence. Simply, an anecdote is a story; and though anecdotes can be a very powerful tool of persuasion, anecdotal evidence is a weak source for an argument as it is not necessarily reliable. Using personal experience or anecdotal evidence to draw a conclusion or solve a problem is further problematic because, essentially, it’s based on a sample size of one; and so, we cannot generalise one person’s experience to the population at large (Dwyer, 2017).
For example, in exploring a given topic, event or situation, other people may have had very different experiences; so, then, the question becomes "which anecdote or experience is correct?" (if any). In a way, drawing conclusions in this manner is akin to making hasty generalisations (i.e. prematurely drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence).
Moreover, another big problem with personal experience is that it is, at its foundation, biased. Remember, this is the perspective of one person — one person, with their own beliefs, attitudes, values, passions and desires. The manner in which an individual draws on their personal experience, in light of these other factors, is inherently biased. Similarly, it can be argued that the use of personal experience in our decision-making is a result of experience bias, which is essentially a cognitive error in which we take what we perceive, believe or have encountered as fact or as how such events play out a significant amount of the time.
On a larger scale, it can be argued that every bias is an experience bias in the sense that biases are developed through experience; however, the distinction here is that the nature of experience, in general, is the erroneous source of belief as fact.
In conclusion, people have a tendency to put great value into the notion of experience. Indeed, experience is what allows us to learn, given that learning is an experience; and so, to look back on an experience, we can retrieve the information we learned — a very useful process, indeed! However, we must also acknowledge that experience is not the same as expertise; we cannot generalise our personal experiences to the larger population; and our experiences may not always provide us accurate information.
The point is, though experience can indeed be useful, we must not rely on it for every issue we engage because it may not be good enough — be it with respect to sufficient knowledge or objectivity. If we want to develop our experience in a manner that facilitates expertise, we must do so in light of evidence, humility and openness to differing perspectives.
Dwyer, C.P. (2017). CT: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dwyer, C. P., & Walsh, A. (2019). An exploratory quantitative case study of critical thinking development through adult distance learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(1), 17-35.
Goldberg, M. (1990). A quasi-experiment assessing the effectiveness of TV advertising directed to children. Journal of Marketing Research, 27, 445–454.
Hammond, K. R. (1996). Upon reflection. Thinking & Reasoning, 2, 2–3, 239–248.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. Penguin: Great Britain.
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, (6): 1121–1134.
Stewart, T. R., Heideman, K. F., Moninger, W. R., & Reagan-Cirincione, P. (1992). Effects of improved information on the components of skill in weather forecasting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 53, 2, 107–134.