Who was Anders Ericsson?

On June 17, 2020, psychologist Anders Ericsson unexpectedly passed away at the age of 72 in Florida, where he lived and worked. He is considered by many to be the world's most influential researcher in the field of expertise development and elite performance. His colleague Neil Charness wrote:
“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. ”
Who was this influential psychologist?

From Sweden to the USA

Ericsson grew up in Sweden where he started studying nuclear engineering, which he later exchanged for the study of psychology in which field he obtained his PhD. He sent his doctoral thesis to Herbert Simon, the famous researcher who would win the Nobel Prize just a few years later (1978).

Ericsson invited Simon to come to Sweden for a public discussion on the topic of his doctoral thesis. Simon, in turn, invited Ericsson in 1976 to work at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, USA, where he became his mentor.

First contributions

Ericsson's first major contribution was in the field of think-aloud protocols. In this research, which he conducted with Simon, subjects were invited to think out loud when solving an 8-puzzle, a kind of two-dimensional Rubik's cube. Together they wrote an influential book about it: Protocol Analysis. Verbal reports as Data.

His second major contribution was in the field of memory training. He researched this together with Bill Chase (who had previously researched expertise development in chess players with Herbert Simon). This research showed that people can greatly improve their memory through training. For details on this research, see this video.

Deliberate practice

In 1980 he went to work at the University of Colorado, and for a brief period (1987-1989) at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, before moving to Florida State University in 1992 where he would work for the rest of his life. During this time he made his third major (and greatest) contribution: the discovery of deliberate practice.

In 1993 he published his most influential article: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Several other influential articles appeared in the following years (1994, 1996). The voluminous book The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance was published in 2006.

He researched deliberate practice in many areas, such as music, sports, writing, software design, investment, medicine and drama. In the later years of his career he also gave international lectures and did consultancy work.

Fame and criticism

Ericsson's work gained wide fame for being featured in several popular science bestsellers, most notably the 2008 book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Unfortunately, Gladwell oversimplified Ericsson's work, much to his discontent.

From that moment on, several critical papers about Ericsson's work were also published. The tenor of those articles was not that deliberate practice was unimportant to building elite performance. The authors acknowledged the importance of deliberate practice. What they claimed was that Ericsson and his co-authors overestimated the role of deliberate practice and underestimated the contribution of talent.

Obviously without saying that Ericsson's work was flawless or that he has completely deciphered the secret of elite performance, I think that, in the polemic between him and his critics, he was more in the right than they were. In this article, I get into some detail about why I think that.

The person

From many articles and messages published after his death (for example this one), an image emerges of a humble, kind man with an enormous passion for what he did and an almost limitless curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

This image is consistent with my own impression of him. I had the pleasure of having email contact with Ericsson somewhat frequently over the past 15 years. Do you know the feeling of meeting a famous person and being slightly disappointed by how they are in real life? Well, for me, that was definitely not the case with him. I got to know him as a kind and attentive person.

Even more impressive to me was his apparent scientific integrity. In e-mails I exchanged with him about certain criticisms of his work, which in my view were unreasonable and misleading in parts, he did not make any cynical or disqualifying remarks about the people involved nor about science itself. He continued to focus on facts, figures, arguments and evidence with, it seems, complete confidence.

This year, in February, he wrote to me:
“May the scientists with the most objective and powerful empirical evidence win!!”