Experience Bias

I recently read an interesting piece in Psychology Today by Dr. Christopher Dwyer titled ‘How Experience Can Hinder Critical Thinking’. Do check it out. There is application to pretty much everything, but of course I tend to think of things in the context of emergency management.

The article starts with the age long argument of education vs experience, but with a particular slant toward critical thinking. My personal take is that the education vs experience argument, in its totality, can’t have a blanket resolution. I think a lot of it is dependent on the topic at hand, and obviously it’s rarely a dichotomy, rather a blending of education and experience is often best. In regard to education, certainly the actual education received holds value, but there are tasks intrinsic to academia which also hold value, perhaps even more than what was learned in the classroom; the rigors of research in an academic environment often being most valuable among them. With that, in many regards, we often see employment announcements with a range of degree majors, or just simply a stated minimum of education, regardless of major. This is in recognition of the intrinsic value of education. And while some professions absolutely require a specific degree, those which don’t, can and should hold less rigidly to those requirements.

While I certainly advocate a minimum extent of education for most positions, I’ve also worked with a considerable number of people with a high school diploma or associate’s degree that can intellectually run circles around those with advanced degrees, at least in certain applications of work and life. Experience is often indicative of exposure to certain situations, often with repetition. The comparing and contrasting of those experiences with what is being experienced in the moment is what supports the argument for the value of experience. It’s also why many advanced degree programs actually require some term of actual work experience before they will accept applicants into their programs. Consider academic programs such as criminal justice. Sure, there are a lot of philosophical topics that are taught, but any courses that speak to practical application should probably be taught by those with actual experience doing those things. Though Dr. Dwyer gives wise advice, stating that we shouldn’t confuse experience with expertise.

All that said, Dr. Dwyer’s article focuses on the application of critical thinking in this argument. He cites some insightful data and studies, but most interesting to me is his mention of experience being personalized. While several people may have ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’, they each may have experienced the event differently or left with different impressions, even if exposed to some of the same situations. We all bring a bias with us, and this bias in the lens through which we view the events of our lives. That bias is then influenced by our perception of each event, fundamentally snowballing and compounding with the more experiences we have. This shows how our experiences can bias our own critical thinking skills. Dr. Dwyer states that critical thinking stemming from someone with more education than experience is likely to be more objective and based on knowledge, which certainly makes sense. That said, individuals basing their critical thinking solely on education may miss insight provided experiences, which can provide considerable context to the thought exercise.

I think the conclusion to be drawn in all this is that critical thinking, in most regards, is optimized by those with a blend of education and experience. It’s also extremely important for us to recognize our own limitations and biases when we approach a decision or other relevant situation. Specific to emergency management, we can leverage a lot from our experiences, but we also know that no two incidents are the same. Therefore, while our experiences can support us in a new event, they can also derail us if not applied thoughtfully and in recognition of our own biases.

This all comes around to my advocacy for emergency management broadly, and incident management in particular, being team sports. Even the first step of the CPG 101 planning process is to form a planning team. We each bring different approaches and perspectives. We also need to advocate for diversity in our teams, regardless of what tasks those teams are charged with. This should be diversity in the broadest sense – diversity of experience, diversity of discipline, diversity in education, diversity in gender, diversity in race, creed, culture, etc. The broader the better. We must do better opening ourselves to the perspectives of others. We all have bias – every one of us. Some bias, obviously depending on the focus, is OK, but it is best for us to balance our individual bias with those of a diverse group. A diverse team approach will bring us better results time and again.

How does experience bias impact you?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

4 thoughts on “Experience Bias

  1. I would agree with the argument in regards to the value of education versus experience being examined from different perspectives. Each brings its own unique set of values to the equation. Another component to also consider in the evaluation of experience really looks into some details. It is one thing to have 10 years of experience in a variety of situations in comparison to 1 year of experience being repeated 9 more times. One can also look at multiple degree programs to see what classes they include in the program. Are they really focused to give students an abundance of courses specific to the actual profession or do they fill the program with generic topics and put in a few targeted classes just to meet the minimum necessary to satisfy the accreditation requirements. Again, just some variables to add to the equation…Thanks

  2. Great post. “Experience is Personalized” – I had not thought of that in the context presented, or in any context that I can recall. It has me reflecting on all the teaching I have done and the feedback I have received re a given incident or training session. I think I will work that into my incident and training debriefs. May I use it?

    1. Absolutely – though true credit goes to Dr Dwyer. I think it’s important for everyone to reflect on their experiences, what makes those experiences unique to them, and how they can learn from and/or apply them. You bring up a good point about all the varying contexts in which we talk about experience and that we really need to consider those things with specific effort.

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