Arrogance of Expertise

Posted on April 19, 2013



In dealing with communication, teaching, and just about any type of information sharing, I think about the idea of the “arrogance of expertise” to frame how we communicate what we know to others that may not be as familiar with the subject and process we are talking about.

We all develop some of sort of expertise in our lives. It happens through the acquired experience of living and increased knowledge. Some expertise is more “academic” in nature, for example being a history professor or researcher. Other expertise is more “practical”, such as being able to work on your car and know what needs to be fixed and how. That can probably be thought of vocational training.

Expertise is good in that it helps our brains make quick decisions and understand new situations according to similar experiences we have had. If you go to a mechanic and describe what is going on in your car, he/she is already thinking about what could be the problem and thinking of possible solutions. But if you asked me, I would probably still be figuring out the question—and really not have much reference to think about what to do (other than take it to a mechanic).

That is the nice thing about expertise, it is very helpful—and it facilitates communication when two individuals already have a foundation on which to refer.  But what happens when there is mismatch in expertise? What assumptions get made when one has expertise and the other one does not? How does it help or hinder communication?

The “arrogance of expertise” comes into play, as I mentioned, when you have to share information, when you teach, when you need to explain something to someone else, and when you want to be understood without coming across as arrogant—and “elitist” in some fashion. This is a problem for many “experts” who wonder why people “don’t get it”. Conversely, it is a problem for non-experts who wonder why experts cannot “speak in plain English” or “explain it better”.

When we develop expertise, it changes the way we look at things. Sometimes we are acutely aware of it and sometimes we are not. But our area of expertise becomes “obvious” to us. The risk comes in forgetting what it was like before we developed the expertise—the connections you did not have before,  but now you do.

When a “non-expert” needs your help, you naturally start with your frame of expertise and may begin explaining away without taking the time to think about how to connect it to the understanding of the non-expert. The non-expert needs more time to understand what you are saying, not easily making the jumps in logic and relationships that are “obvious” to you. The non-expert needs a frame of reference from which to work. He/she needs to connect to his/her cognitive map, essentially to their understanding of the world based on their experience. In a worst-case scenario, the expert ends up frustrated that the non-expert “ doesn’t get it when it’s so obvious.” The non-expert may end up frustrated because the expert made him/her feel like a fool, an idiot, or just plain dumb—that the expert is more concerned about sharing how smart he/she is.

Have you had such an experience?

Also, note that this is not a question of “intelligence” or cognitive ability/capacity. It is not about how “smart you are”.

It is a good idea for “experts” to examine their expertise and how they convey it to non-experts. Part of that is to be aware of how difficult it is to be a non-expert, and the process that is needed for an information exchange that does not result in frustration. In teaching, this is a big component of what teaching is about.

As a expert, you can try learning something completely new out of your field to see what the struggle teaches you as a non-expert (in one example, an economics teacher took up guitar lessons to relearn how difficult it is to learn something new).

Personally, I think that is why I like dabbling in so much—in fact, I have been referred to as a “professional dabbler.” I like to think about how we learn from each other and share our expertise. I often ask individuals with expertise in one field to break down some aspect of their expertise so I can learn from them, but also learn about how they teach it. Experts who handle their expertise well can “teach you”, while those that do not, leave you confused and feeling dumb. When an expert presents to a group, we want the group to leave feeling respected and well-informed, even if they are still not experts. If the group leaves confused and frustrated, the value of your information is lost.

Thus, beware the arrogance of expertise. I am not saying to NOT be an expert or to not be proud of your expertise, just be aware that when you use it, pay attention to how you are using it such that your information is actually getting through—rather than reinforcing biases and stereotypes such as “experts are out of touch, don’t really know anything, or only care about looking like experts”.

Next time you present, communicate, or share information, ask yourself—was I aware of and did I display any arrogance of expertise?


Looking for some procedural knowledge, some “how to” steps? Write a comment! Let me know for a follow-up post, or send in your own resources!

Interested in reading some related articles?

Collaboration from a Cognitive Perspective: Sharing Models across Expertise by Rachel Kaplan

The Challenge of Information Exchange by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan