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This is the hidden cost of gaining expertise

Researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management conducted four experiments and three field studies that found expertise can undermine emotional reactions. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

This is the hidden cost of gaining expertise
[Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

Most of us wish we had more time to pursue things we’re passionate about—whether that’s sports, film, books, fine wines, or others.

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In the time we do have for such pursuits, we often accumulate more and more knowledge of our passions. An avid football fan, for example, may study the intricacies of offensive-line formations and strategies. A movie buff might read up on screenplay structure or camera angles. An aspiring wine aficionado may delve into weather effects on grape varietals.

Indeed, people pay thousands of dollars for classes on wine, coffee, and music, among other passions. Gaining such knowledge helps people identify what they like—such as more esoteric wines—and search for new products and experiences more efficiently. Most research to date, in fact, has largely emphasized the myriad benefits of consumer expertise.

But is there a cost of developing expertise around our passions?

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It turns out there is.

The more expertise we gain in a given area, the more “emotionally numb” we can become. Ironically, growing our knowledge about a passion-driven pursuit can diminish the emotional component of our passion for it.

Our research—spearheaded by our collaborator Matthew Rocklage at the University of Massachusetts Boston—illuminates this reality in a combination of real-world reviews and lab-based experiments that included more than 700,000 consumers and 6 million observations in all, across domains including movies, photography, wine, and beer.

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The good news, as we’ll discuss, is that there is a way to work around the challenge of expertise-driven emotional numbness.

Losing that loving feeling

We conducted four experiments and three field studies that found expertise can undermine emotional reactions.

For example, in one study, we analyzed 13 years of RottenTomatoes.com film reviews to show that the reviews of experts (established journalists) consistently demonstrated less emotion than those of novice reviewers. To gauge emotionality, we used the Evaluative Lexicon, a tool we developed and validated, again with Rocklage, to measure emotion present in text.

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In a subsequent study, we asked participants to indicate their expertise in photography and react to photographs using a checklist of Evaluative Lexicon-based adjectives ranging in emotionality. We found greater expertise was associated with less feeling in the responses to the photos. Expertise, it appeared, made these rich photos less emotionally evocative.

To test the effect in a more causal fashion, we brought in new participants and provided a subset of them a “Photography 101” learning module that helped them acquire expertise in evaluating photographs. Next, we asked everyone to respond to pictures as in the previous study. We found that participants who had newly acquired expertise—courtesy of our crash course— exhibited less emotional reactions to the pictures.

In additional studies using online data, we observed similar emotional-numbing effects of expertise in the domains of wine and beer. In both studies, we found that a given individual’s reviews of these beverages revealed decreased emotion over time—their growing, experience-based expertise appeared to dull their emotional reaction to the tasting.

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Why is this happening? When you gain expertise about anything, it shifts your focus from what you feel to what you know. You default to using the “cognitive structure,” or knowledge you’ve gained in a domain, rather than focusing on emotional elements of the experience. That means moving from “I love how this Cabernet tastes” to “This Cabernet tastes high in acidity, with strong notes of black cherry.” This cognitive architecture essentially takes center stage and crowds out the emotional reactions people might otherwise have.

This work may help explain the disconnect between ratings made by critics (that is, experts) and non-experts on popular sites like RottenTomatoes—mainstream audiences are often lukewarm about movies critics love, and vice-versa. The experts’ expertise may have rendered them more emotionally numb to film fare, with more positive ratings based on more nuanced movie features, while “regular people” simply like what they like.

Bring back that loving feeling

The good news is that the development of expertise needn’t permanently diminish our ability to feel emotion in response to our passions. There is a mental “serum” to counteract the emotional numbness of expertise.

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As our initial research suggested, once we gain expertise, our default becomes to apply our cognitive structure (knowledge), which numbs emotion. But in a separate study, we demonstrated this result is reversible. When we instructed participants explicitly to focus on feelings elicited by photos we showed them, those with high expertise in photography showed the same level of emotion as lower-expertise peers.

Our findings have potentially important implications for daily life. For one, you can take steps to combat expertise-based emotional numbness. If you’re passionate about wine, for example, and have gained some knowledge around the subtleties of tasting, then be selective about when you use that expertise. Perhaps it’s useful when you’re at a formal tasting or with other wine buffs, but if you are having a glass or two with a friend you might have a better experience if you shift away from the expert mindset and let your emotions set in.

Another implication is that expert opinions, ironically, may be less likely to sway consumer responses due to the emotional-numbness effect. Our earlier work shows that emotion is predictive of behavior: we are moved by emotion; so if expert reviews—whether for films, books, or wine—reflect a numbed emotional response, it is plausible that they might not influence our interest in the item in question. This possibility is consistent with the expert-consumer disconnect in ratings mentioned earlier. Of course, in some cases, perhaps people will trust less emotional experts, which makes this an intriguing direction for further exploration

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In the future, we may examine the circumstances under which even experts display a more emotional reaction—such as experiencing a movie or book that shifts them from their default cognitive mindset to focus on more pure emotion, perhaps due to its quality or innovativeness. In such cases, when experts do express their emotions, their reviews may serve as powerful markers—of movies or books so moving that they turn the tide on experts’ default cognitive structure.

For now, we hope our findings help people understand why the pursuit of a passion can lead to less emotion for that passion, and how to take steps to potentially counteract that natural response.


Derek Rucker is a professor of Marketing and Loran Nordgren is a professor of Management and Organizations at The Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

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