K. Anders Ericsson (1947-2020) The World's Foremost Expert on Expert Performance
Anders and I crossed paths many times before we became colleagues at FSU. I left CMU with my doctorate degree in 1974, having worked with William G. Chase, whose name I took for my named professorship at FSU long after his untimely death from a heart attack in Dec. 1983 at the age of 43. My dissertation revolved around the groundbreaking work on expertise in chess that Bill Chase and Nobel Laureate Herb Simon had initiated shortly after I arrived as a new graduate student in 1969. Anders completed his PhD in 1976 in Stockholm and then came to CMU as a postdoctoral fellow to work with Herb Simon, teaming up with him on using verbal report protocols to investigate cognitive processes in problem solving, leading to a classic Psych Review (6000+ citations) paper and later a classic book (over 13,000 citations) on protocol analysis. He also worked with Bill Chase on an equally groundbreaking piece of work on memory expertise, initially studying digit-span experts and it was that work that caught my attention as I was then working on expert performance in chess and bridge. Anders moved from that postdoc to University of Colorado in 1980, and stayed there, with the exception of a sojourn to Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education in Berlin (1987-1989) that led to his most cited paper (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer (1993): The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, in Psychological Review, with about 11,000 citations), until his move to FSU in 1992. (I also spent a summer at Max Planck, in 1993, just before joining FSU, working with Ralf Krampe and others who had cherished the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from him when he had visited.)
Once at FSU he set about putting FSU's Psychology Department on the map for cognitive psychology, with the emphasis on expert performance and skill acquisition, in part through a series of hires, with my coming in 1994 along with a more junior colleague, Rolf Zwaan. Even before I arrived, Anders reached out to me to allow me to play a bit part in a critically important paper published in the American Psychologist: Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747. That is still the most highly cited paper (3176 citations according to Google Scholar) that I've ever participated in and it soon led to popular works on expertise, particularly Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success" published in 2008. Gladwell took the term outliers from that paper where we partly defined experts as outliers, those performing several standard deviations above the general population.
That was not the first occasion where I had collaborated with Anders. It was probably in 1984-85 when I was at University of Waterloo in Canada and was asked by the editor of the Canadian Journal of Psychology, my colleague Phil Bryden, to organize a special issue on expertise. Naturally, I reached out to Anders to write an article on memory skill. He immediately demonstrated that superior performance can be achieved even when it involves writing in your second language: Ericsson, K. A. (1985). Memory skill. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 39, 188-231.
Anders was the consummate scholar. He wrote papers of the very highest quality, carefully researching issues. Unlike the bite-size snacks that much of our literature is composed of today, when you sit down to read his work, it is like being at a banquet. He was a ferocious defender of the role of evidence in theory building. He won way too many of his favorite bets, "I'll bet you a quarter that…" when someone voiced an opinion that was contradicted by his voluminous knowledge about research on expert performance and many other areas in psychology. He polished papers to the nth degree, probably driving some of his collaborators to distraction in the process, particularly those taken with the volume theory of scientific publishing who were willing to satisfice on paper construction, as opposed to optimizing the writing as he was inclined to do.
Anders loved to argue over theory, particularly in his deeply loved field of expertise research. He was not argumentative for the sake of being proven right, but for uncovering the deep truth in a field, though it turned out that he was right most of the time. When you are the key proponent of the leading theory in a field, you attract many challengers. I was privy to more than a few cases/drafts where he was given the opportunity to reply to his critics. He was never out to prove "I'm right and you're wrong" in his commentary, but rather to try to lead the field onward by better evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of evidence, and providing guidance on how to advance methodology to build better theories.
He edited and contributed seminal work to what, he reported with pride, was the best-selling Handbook that Cambridge University Press had ever published: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2006). He wrote 3 of the 42 chapters. As a section editor, I had the privilege of watching his organizational skills and attention to detail in pulling together that massive tome, though watched from the sidelines as a second author on two of the chapters in the equally influential second edition published a few years ago (2018). Those volumes speak eloquently to the way in which he revolutionized research in the field of expert performance. His theories were optimistic ones, stressing the importance of the methods by which people tackled skill acquisition and the role of deliberate or purposeful practice in building skill. Nature, in his view, took a secondary role to nurture in the development of an expert, a rather striking departure from the historic and dominant view that experts were born, not made, by virtue of their (God-given) innate talent. In Anders' view, if you had the time, the resources, and access to expert coaches, you too could achieve at the highest level. There were exceptions, of course, that Anders was not afraid to point to. No matter how much deliberate practice you accumulated, you would not become dominant in a sport like basketball if nature had not provided you with adequate stature. Spud Webb aside, you couldn't dominate if you were my height, but would probably do better at Anders' height. More importantly, he continually stressed the importance of tracing the processes by which experts generated superior performance, the need to understand mechanisms of skilled performance.
This choice of approach was no accident, as he had worked with Herb Simon to bring process tracing methods such as analysis of verbal protocols, using both concurrent and retrospective verbal reports, out of the disrepute that this technique had suffered when applied incorrectly to tasks like perception and attention in the earliest days of European introspective psychology. He helped popularize analysis of verbal reports by providing careful techniques for having people report the contents of thought processes rather than allowing them to theorize about their thought processes. Some of the techniques, such as having people warm up on thinking aloud using mental arithmetic problems, are now standard procedures.
Anders office in the new psychology building was across the hall from mine. He would come in every day (including weekends) in the morning, usually sometime after rush hour, and leave in the evening (not sure when as I left around 5:30-6:00 pm). He always had a boisterous greeting for me when he spotted "Professor Charness" in the hallway. I could occasionally overhear his discussions with visitors to his office, students, faculty, visiting faculty of which there were so many from around the world. He always showed a genuine interest in people as human beings first, and as fellow scientists second. You could not ask for a better human being and rewarding scientific collaborator.
I drifted away from work on expertise, particularly my inquiries into how age and acquired skill jointly influence performance, a task that occupied me when I first came to FSU. Although I suspect that Anders was somewhat disappointed when I shifted to work on age and technology use, much more applied work than I had started with earlier in my career, he was always a helpful contributor. You could count on his astute commentary in our Brown Bag cognitive lunch meetings to get you to think more deeply about your assumptions and he had excellent practical advice about how to better understand the mechanisms supporting performance. Anders was never shy about offering his opinion, perhaps to the terror of new graduate students presenting for the first time in Brown Bag. But after they got used to the fact that he was always striving to get closer to the truth of their research area, they listened carefully and learned from him. He had an outsized influence on the field and on all those willing to share with him their excitement about their particular voyage of discovery.
Over the past decade or so, Anders traveled widely, accepting invitations to speak all over the world, fully enjoying his role of senior figure in the field of expertise. He came back energized and with new collaborations in fields such as sports psychology and medicine (surgery). He attracted outstanding speakers to our department and to our area to the great benefit of our students. Students flocked to his courses and to his lab to learn from the master. He also inspired his peers, forming interdisciplinary teams to tackle thorny research questions in expert performance. It was awe-inspiring to listen to someone with such a complete grasp of the field.
His legacy is apparent: revolutionizing the study of expert performance and building a highly influential theory; honing the use of think aloud verbal protocols to trace out cognitive processes, generating ingenious case studies of memory experts, development of the construct of long-term working memory. Most of us would have been satisfied with any one of those accomplishments, not to mention about 275 publications in total including a book on expertise written for a lay audience. If you Google (scholar) his statistics such as publications and citations, you find his h-index is 97, his g-index is 276, that he averages about 1700 citations every year between 1975 and 2020 and over 240 citations/publication. Yes, he was and is a superstar. He shone so brightly, illuminating our field, blazing new paths, lighting the way for so many students and colleagues. He will be sorely missed, but his work will endure. We mourn his death but celebrate a fabulously rich and inspirational life.
Anders was an imposing figure, appropriate to his Viking ancestry. He had the blazing blue eyes, imposing height, and fierce beard expected from his Swedish heritage. I could easily envision him being buried with his favorite sword and Viking boat accompanied by the swelling sounds of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. In truth it would be more appropriate, as those who have visited his hoarder's office, to be buried with a boatload, nay, a cruise ship load of the papers and books that buried his desk from view. That is an enduring image, one that I will always have, of Anders, that tall Viking explorer, nearly obscured by the mounds of articles and books, peering out cheerfully at me, always delighted to share in the pursuit to build a more orderly science of expert performance.
- Neil Charness
The William G. Chase Professor of Psychology
Florida State University