Barbara Gail Montero’s Thought in Action

Thought in Action by Barbara Gail Montero is the dual of many of the books I’ve discussed on this site. Where the others could be characterized by “in contrast to our beliefs that the bulk of our daily lives consists of conscious activity, it is actually primarily unconscious”, her work is “in contrast to our belief that expert performance requires being in the zone and unconscious of our actions, expert activity is actually often consciously directed”

I found her argument convincing and potentially complementary to the other work, not only because she’s concerned with expert rather than routine actions, but also because her definition of thought is worthy of attention.

What is an Expert?

In discussing her book, it is critical to realize that Montero’s criteria for being an expert are fundamentally different from that of the authors she’s discussing e.g., Dreyfus & Dreyfus. Consider driving an automobile: For both the beginning driver is someone who is just learning how to operate a car. For Dreyfus the expert is someone who drives daily in support of other activities, getting groceries, getting to work etc. For these drivers the activity of driving the car recedes into the background and generally not subject to any thoughtful consideration. In contrast Montero’s experts are competitive drivers, usually on a track/racecourse, looking to constantly improve: reducing their lap times; hitting a turn more cleanly, etc.

Radically different situations, with radically different people pursuing radically different goals.

I’d distill her criteria for expert activity as the following: have you spent years practicing and do you remain committed to continually improving their performance. This radically changes the frame of the discussion. Subject to these criteria few people are experts in more than a few things, and possibly many are expert at none. This signals a need for extreme care when using our own experience as a basic for analogizing expert activity, since our experience base may be very narrow.

What is a Thought? 

In a similar vein, Montero refines the definition of thinking when it comes to expert activity. In contrast to the strawman view that thinking about action requires detailed control over each individual motion, Montero argues that thought controlling action is focused upon the particular components which the expert currently views as barriers to improved performance. Components is probably an exaggeration; from her examples it appears that the expert is often concerned with just one thing at a time.

For example, when doing a serve in tennis, the expert might concentrate on keeping their shoulder forward while the rest just flows. The thinking (I think of it as focus of attention) shifts to what is important at that point in the activity. The level of detail: particular posture; individual motions; etc. shifts accordingly.


just-do-it vs cognition-in-action

A large part of the book is taken up with disputing what she terms the just-do-it principle

just-do-it principle is that of an action performed with neither conscious control over nor explicit attention to the action (much like Schneider and Shiffrin’s (1977) account). Fitts and Posner (1967), for example, in their urtext on the psychology of skilled performance, see an expert’s performance as automatic and performed without attention

Montero cites a substantial body of work supporting this view and the often concomitant view that that thinking reduces the performance of professional athletes. She then proceeds to successfully contest their findings.

Her counterproposal to just-do-it is cognition-in-action

“Cognition-in-action: For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near optimal performance frequently employs some of the following conscious mental processes: self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to or monitoring of their actions, conceptualizing their actions, control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, and acting for a reason. Moreover, such mental processes do not necessarily or even generally interfere with expert performance, and should not generally be avoided by experts.”

She backs this with a detailed analysis of the deficiencies of the just-do-it school. I’m not going to go over her counterexamples — they are too numerous and detailed to cover here. If, like me, you find her arguments convincing, the question then becomes how did the just-do-it principle become so dominant?

It appears that there are a number of reasons for this dominance:

  • When reading books like the Dreyfus ones, you find yourself thinking “oh yes, expert driving is like that” thinking about your time commuting, not your time on the track, forgetting that track time is driving too, but driving of a fundamentally different sort.
  • The experts used in the experiments aren’t the experts with whom she’s concerned. Skilled is probably a better word for these experimental subjects — they are competent in their actions, but not competitive
  • There is considerable literature on the psyching out phenomenon where particular kinds of thoughts lead to poor performance. Montero attributes this to nervousness/distraction rather than thinking about the task, but the concept of psych casts an aspersion on engaging in conscious thought while performing expert activity.

Finally, the type of thinking explored in the experiments is definitely not the on-task thinking that would normally be deployed during an activity, focusing instead on things that can be easily, repeatably captured for later analysis.

Rethinking Unconscious Feedback

For a while now, I’ve been pushing on this idea that our actions are less conscious than we think. After reading Montero’s book, and finding her argument convincing that, in certain situations, we might also be more conscious than we think, I’m reconsidering my take on studies I’ve read previously.


The most noteworthy one is Stienstra’s article on the development of a sonic feedback system for speedskaters 1. When I read it, I was thinking oh, this shows that a lot of expert activity is not conscious. Post Montero, especially her take on thinking about proprioceptive, it also seems possible that sonification could be an affordance for thoughtful activity.


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