Juan Pablo Bermúdez (Universidad Externado de Colombia)
Abstract: Many human actions require skill, from our everyday commuting to the gold medalist’s world-class performance. What is the proper explanation of skill-involving action? There are two main answers: anti-intellectualism holds that skillful action is produced by automatic coping processes without the involvement of higher-order mental processes; intellectualism claims that even bodily skillful actions require the involvement of intention-directed processes. I examine the evidence for three psychological phenomena recently held to support anti-intellectualism—choking under pressure, expertise-induced amnesia, and expert confabulation—, and argue that, while the evidence contradicts ‘Anscombean’ kinds of intellectualism, it also supports another intellectualist view, namely that the executive, top-down control of attention is a necessary component of any skilled action.
Keywords: Skill, expertise, habit, attention, automaticity, control, utilization behaviour, dual process.
Actions involving skill and expertise are particularly controversial. The remarks of Niki Nakayama, an expert chef, about the way she works, illustrate this:
Cooking is the one thing that I feel I can completely trust what I’m doing. When I’m planning a dish, my mind is completely shut off. It’s all based on feeling: ‘this has to be here, this has to be here, this feels right here, this looks right here.’ I think it’s similar to that meditative state that people can get to, where they’re not listening to their minds anymore, but it’s just that moment.
The claim that her mind is not involved when acting skillfully seems to go against a broadly shared view (which I will call intellectualism) according to which action production requires high-order mental processes involving some state like intentions, beliefs, or desires. Her description rather resembles Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow, a state in which “there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic” (1990, 155). But notice another of Nakayama’s remarks:
The best advice that I’ve been given was to never stop learning. Because the moment you give up and think you know everything, you’re done as a chef.
Why should an expert keep learning, if her mind is shut off during performance? The coarse-grained reflection required for learning something new or altering overpracticed actions may hinder intuitive flow. So if experts are continuously learning, this suggests that the mind is more closely involved in skillful action than previously suggested.
It has been recently argued that automatic processes have a norm-sensitivity of their own, based on resolving felt tensions. Assuming this is correct, is automatic control sufficient for expert action, or must it include some element of reflection? Anti-intellectualists defend the former view: the more skilled you are, the less you need to think about what to do or how to do it; the practical situation simply solicits the proper response from you. As in Daoist wei-wu-wei, the expert ‘acts without doing’: responds without planning or calculating by merely resonating with her practical environment’s dynamic lines of force. Intellectualists take the latter view, often pointing to the constant drive for improvement as evidence of reflection’s centrality to expertise. This drive, they argue, is what separates true experts from merely competent performers: complete automaticity begets stagnation, so experts keep a window, however small, for reflection to continue directing and structuring automated routines, thus increasing performance control. Nakayama’s claim that while cooking her action is based solely on feeling supports anti-intellectualism; her further statement that a chef must never stop learning supports intellectualism. So what kind of control do skilled and expert agents exert while performing skillful actions?
Intellectualists face a tough task, since the fast, fine-grained, adaptive bodily control displayed in skillful performance seems hardly explainable by such coarse and slow phenomena as deliberation and planning. Moreover, intellectualists also must explain how reflective elements are integrated with the automatic processes that control the largely automatic routines of skilled action. Intellectualists have recently taken up the task, arguing that appeals to sub-personal, automatic processes leave agentive control, the crucial feature of skilled action, unexplained. Some anti-intellectualists have recently replied to this challenge by pointing to a number of psychological phenomena that they claim intellectualism could not explain, because they show that reflecting on what one is doing is either unhelpful or even harmful to the performance of skillful actions.
This essay argues that said evidence, if examined closely, reveals that reflection does play a necessary role in skilled action. Automatic control is insufficient for skilled action because it cannot explain the coherence and unity between automatic routines that any skillful action requires. Before I present my argument for these claims, allow me to introduce the three empirical phenomena recently cited in support of anti-intellectualism.
Choking / the yips
Some intellectualists hold that automatic behaviour counts as intentional action only if the agent can answer ‘Anscombean’ questions (like ‘What did you do?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’) about it. Against this kind of intellectualism, Michael Brownstein has invoked a phenomenon variously called “choking”, “the yips”, and “Steve Blass disease”:
Steve Blass was a hugely successful Major League Baseball player who inexplicably lost his ability to pitch. […] Suddenly and inexplicably, he couldn’t even hit the catcher’s mitt from the mound. […] The common interpretation is that Blass’ problem stemmed from something like chronic over-thinking. This is a common enough ‘‘disease’’ in profession sports to earn its own name. (Brownstein 2014, 557)
Brownstein argues that the reflective self-awareness necessary to answer Anscombean questions is precisely the kind of over-thinking that causes yipping. Multiple studies seem to confirm Brownstein’s claim, which in turn supports the anti-intellectualist view that the fine-grained sensorimotor control of expert performance does not involve reflection.
The automation necessary to acquire a skill seems to generate expertise-induced amnesia, a disconnection between what is done and what is accessible to self-report. Many expert testimonies corroborate this. Take basketball star Larry Bird: ‘‘[a lot of the] things I do on the court are just reactions to situations […] A lot of times, I’ve passed the basketball and not realized I’ve passed it until a moment or so later’’; Hall of Fame NFL running back Walter Payton: ‘‘people ask me about this move or that move, but I don’t know why I did something. I just did it’’; and philosophical baseball catcher Yogi Berra: “Think? How can you hit and think at the same time?”
Expertise-induced amnesia speaks against intellectualism about expert action. If an agent’s behaviour implies a reflective process, some aspects of what she did and how she did it must have been accessed by working memory; and if so, the agent should be able to report them (since reportability and working memory seem to be closely linked). The unreportability of control processes suggests that skilled actions are controlled automatically.
Expertise-induced amnesia notwithstanding, some experts do produce reports about what they do and how they do it. But such reports often seem to be mistaken. Studies suggest that the rules experts believe to be following (about e.g. how and where to focus attention) turn out to misdescribe what they actually do. Cricket batters, for instance, are taught to always keep their eyes on the ball, and experts seem to believe they do. But eye-tracking evidence suggests that the more experienced a batter is, the less time her eyes spend focusing on the ball: the expert batter’s eyes move quickly away from the ball, making a “predictive saccade” to the place where they anticipate the ball will bounce. The more expert the player, the faster the saccade; so expertise is inversely proportional to the time spent watching the ball.
Cases like this (and, as we will see, this is not the only one) seem to support the anti-intellectualist view that skill is inversely proportional to reliance on explicit rules. Moreover, the fact that the performer’s explicitly held rules and beliefs misdescribe performance suggests that the semantic content of her reflective states and intentions does not (or at least not entirely) control skillful automatic processes.
Do these three psychological phenomena provide solid support for anti-intellectualism about skilled action? Before moving toward an answer, allow me first to clear a few conceptual issues.
The precise meaning of ‘skill’ is part of what is at stake here, but it seems clear that having a skill implies having automated the performance of some cognitive or sensorimotor sub-routines through practice. Thus, skillfully doing A implies that certain components of A-ing have become automated, or ‘chunked’, and are thus performed without recruiting working memory. (E.g. skillfully typing these words implies having automated the processes that associate specific letter strings to specific finger movements, so that I no longer reflect about finger movements while writing each word).
Automaticity is thus necessary for skill. But it does not seem to be sufficient, because not all acquired associations would qualify as skills (e.g. those that constitute implicit biases, or mere associations between ideas). What else does skill need, then?
In order to count as a skill, and not merely a collection of automated processes, at least an element of control is required that unites automatic routines into a coherent performance. Skilled agents are able to fine-tune each of their body movements to the particular situation, direct their attention to exactly the relevant features, and make multiple precise corrections on the fly.
Anti-intellectualists hold that automatic control, along with the agent’s history of long practice and habituation, can account for such fine-grained, fast-paced control, and that online reflection about these processes, being too effortful and coarse-grained, would lead to the loss of control. Intellectualists hold that automatic control cannot sufficiently explain the broader coherence of skillful performance, or the precision of world-class, expert performance. The task ahead is establishing which view is more strongly supported by evidence and argument.
‘Skill’ and ‘skilled action’ are quite ambiguous terms. It seems unlikely that the skills involved in my tying my shoelaces, a cricket batter’s batting, a physician’s reaching a complex diagnosis, and a philosopher’s critically assessing an argument, all share some common essence. I will thus focus here on sensorimotor skills involved in bodily performances, like sports and dance, which seem like more of a unified class, and are the ones most traditionally problematic for intellectualism.
Some researchers understand skill as a continuum between novices and experts, and thus conceive of expertise as nothing but the highest degree of skill. Others think skill and expertise are qualitatively different, general skill largely consisting in automatic dispositions (and therefore susceptible to stagnation), expertise including online reflective guidance toward continuous improvement. Intellectualists tend to support a qualitative distinction, whereas anti-intellectualists lean towards a quantitative distinction. It is important not to presuppose either view, rather assessing the arguments for and against each.
2. Reflection and skilled performance: Interpreting the evidence
According to Brownstein, choking, or the yips, reveals that “performing skilled actions well stands in an inverse relationship to self-focused awareness” (2014, 557). A performer’s reflecting on her ongoing behaviour—in a way that would allow her to answer Anscombean questions—hinders skillful performance. But let us take a step back: it is unclear whether ‘choking’ and ‘the yips’ are the same thing, different phenomena with common underlying causes, or independent conditions. Moreover, if the phenomena have to do with reflective over-thinking, it is unclear what it is that people are reflectively thinking about when they suffer from these problems, and whether the effects occur when people reflect on some features but not when on others. So more clarity is needed.
On the eve of the 1994 soccer World Cup, the Colombian national team was among the competition’s favourites: they had a brilliant set of players at the peak of their careers, and showed top-level performances in the qualifying games, famously beating Argentina, another favourite, 5–0. But when the moment of truth came, they failed. Actually, ‘failed’ does not do it justice. They flopped horrendously, going back home after group-stage elimination. This was a clear case of choking under pressure, in the psychologists’ sense of the term, i.e. a performance that is below what is expected given the agent’s skill level, in a high-pressure situation (i.e. a situation where the agent feels that performing well is highly important).
There are two main theories about why skilled performers choke under pressure. Explicit monitoring theory holds that high pressure leads the agent to closely and reflectively monitor previously automated aspects of performance, thus disrupting automatic control and leading to performance breakdown. Distraction theory states that high pressure causes the agent to reflect on aspects extraneous to her task (e.g. the outcomes at stake), which thus occupy attentional and working-memory resources, thereby disrupting performance. Each theory points to a different relation between reflection and choking: the former suggests that reflective focus on the task leads to choking; the latter, that reflective focus on the task is required to avoid choking. So which one is right?
Both are, apparently. Two different kinds of pressure seem to have two different effects on reflection, which in turn seem to cause two different performance failures. DeCaro et al. (2011) showed this by distinguishing between two kinds of pressure—the pressure of being monitored by others, and the pressure of high-stakes, performance-dependent outcomes—, and distinguishing between two kinds of tasks—reflective tasks (which rely heavily on working memory), and intuitive tasks (which do not)—. They found that the pressure of being monitored tends to hinder intuitive task performance, but not reflective task performance, whereas outcome-related pressure has the inverse effect, disrupting reflective task performance and not intuitive task performance. This suggests that the pressure of being watched can lead agents to reflectively focus on automated aspects of performance, thus hindering automatic control (as explicit-monitoring theory would suggest), while outcome pressure can lead agents to take reflective focus away from their task, thus also hindering performance (as distraction theory would hold). Of course, both kinds of pressure can coexist, like when you are playing at the World Cup—and in those cases both kinds of performance failure can occur simultaneously.
This finding suggests that ‘choking’ actually refers to at least two distinct phenomena. Papineau (2014) helpfully suggests that, although both phenomena are instances of the general phenomenon he calls “Not Having Your Mind Right”, they deserve distinct names and explanations. I follow him in using “The Yips” for cases of performance failure due to reflecting on automated components of an action, and “Choking” for cases of performance failure due to diverting reflective focus away from an action.
Also illuminating is Papineau’s (2014) distinction between basic actions (i.e. behaviours that you can directly decide to perform without having to decide to do anything else), and the components of basic actions (i.e. simpler behavioural routines that are constitutive parts of a basic action and have become automated through practice). For it seems to follow from the above that reflectively focusing on the action’s components harms performance, whereas not reflectively focusing on the basic action also does. And given this, it seems consistent with the evidence to claim that skilled agents must keep reflection away from action components, but focused on their intended basic actions. For reflecting on action components leads to loss of fine-grained automatic control, and ultimately to Yipping, while losing reflective focus on the basic action leads to distraction, and ultimately to Choking.
When action components are brought into reflective focus, fast and fine-grained automatic control is interrupted by slow, coarse-grained reflective control. This seems consistent with famous yipping cases, like those of Chuck Knoblauch, a New York Yankees second baseman who became unable to throw to first base, or Mackey Sasser, a catcher who lost his ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher, both usually interpreted as paradigmatic cases of Steve Blass disease (Blass himself became unable to hit the catcher’s mitt from the mound). They all have in common a loss of control over tasks that are relatively simple, and initiated by them. The Yips affects performers whose function is initiating plays (e.g. pitchers and catchers in baseball or bowlers in cricket), but the condition is notoriously absent from responsive aspects of performance (like batting in baseball and receiving in tennis) and continuous action sequences (like most of soccer). One can see how the pressure of being watched may may lead someone to Yipping: knowing others are waiting for me to make my move, I may worry about getting the specific performance parameters right, which would lead me to reflectively check them just before I execute them.
Choking is notably different. The cause of losing focus on the task at hand seems to be a failure to inhibit task-irrelevant features of the practical situation (like worries about what will happen if I fail), leading to the relevant features being ‘lost in the noise’. While one may advise a Yipping-prone performer to let herself go and not think too much, proper advise to avoid Choking would be to focus on the performance, to keep here eyes on the ball and her head in the game.
This analysis of The Yips, Choking, and their causes, does not seem to support anti-intellectualism. The Yips does moderate intellectualism, since it shows that performers should avoid reflectively controlling action components while performing (although they may do so while practicing, e.g. while trying to correct or recalibrate a given gesture). But Choking supports intellectualism by suggesting that automatic control of action components, although necessary, must be subordinated to higher-order reflective processes of attention guidance.
In this respect, Choking is analogous to everyday slips, like when I leave the office intending to drive to the candy store, but end up driving home instead. In slips, my behaviour displays automatic control, no doubt, but the basic action’s overall unity dissolves because I fail to keep my governing intention in reflective focus, thus losing the reflective control that unifies multiple threads of performance into the basic action I intended to perform. Analogously, when performers lose focus on their overarching intention and strategy—perhaps because menacing and stressful thoughts overload inhibitory control—, this leads to performance failure. Such lack of focus can make the unity that characterizes expert skilled action dissolve into a pattern of incoherent, albeit controlled, automatic processes.
So reflective focus on the intended action seems necessary for skilled action, and the more pressure there is on the agent to perform, the more reflective control seems to be needed. Simply letting automaticity take control seems insufficient for skilled intentional action performance at the highest levels, mainly because expert-level performance situations are often crowded with distracting forces (like fans yelling things at you, fans of your team expecting so much from you, your own worries about ability or future outcomes, multiple bodily pains, sheer nervousness, etc.).
Now, what about everyday, familiar, habitual skilled actions? I would probably need to reflectively control attention in order to win the World Championship of Knot Tying, but do I need reflective control of attention in order to tie my shoelaces? The more habitual and routine the skilled action is, the less clear it is that reflection must be involved. I believe the same argument from distraction applies to both expert and habitual actions, but for reasons of space I focus here solely on expert action, and leave habitual actions for another time.
Anti-intellectualists hold that the automation of routines implied in skill acquisition causes skilled agents to suffer from “expertise-induced amnesia” with respect to how they perform their actions. Since anything accessible to working memory is presumably available for subsequent declarative report, the failure of experts to report what they do or how they do it suggests that the cognitive processes that determine their performance must have occurred independently of working memory. And given the link between working memory and reflection, the lack of reportability suggests skilled action is controlled automatically rather than reflectively.
This has suggestive empirical support. Beilock et al. (2002) studied the performance of novice and expert golfers while putting, and their reportability. Participants were asked first to list all the elements of a typical putt, and later to list all the specific steps they themselves had taken in performing their last putt. While experts gave overall longer generic descriptions of the steps involved in putting than novices, the experts’ generic descriptions were much longer and more precise than their episodic descriptions of their own putt. In fact, the shortest of all episodic descriptions were those of experts. This supports the existence of expertise-induced amnesia by showing that, although experts have a large store of general explicit knowledge about their skill, what exactly they do while performing is less accessible for them than for novices.
Intellectualists have remained unconvinced by both the argument from expert anecdotal reports, and the argument from funny-putter-type studies.
It is worth noting, first, that Beilock’s studies do seem to speak against Anscombean intellectualism, by showing that more highly skilled performers seem less able to reflectively access information about the what and how of skilled performance (as measured by their ability to provide a list of the steps taken to perform the skilled action) than novices. That said, this is not sufficient to reject other intellectualist accounts of reflection’s role in skilled action. An alternative role for reflection is sustaining attention on the current task so that relevant environmental features may become salient, while irrelevant stimuli are inhibited. Expertise-induced amnesia seems insufficient to undermine this kind of intellectualism.
A further problem with taking Beilock’s experimental findings as evidence for the nature of expert action concerns the very definition of ‘expertise’. Beilock’s studies assume a gradual conception of the skill-expertise distinction, calling ‘experts’ those participants with higher degrees of skill. This begs the important question whether experts are just highly skilled agents, or whether expertise is qualitatively different from skill.
Barbara Montero defends the latter. She conceives experts as “those who have practiced their skill in a thoughtful, critical manner on a near daily basis for at least around 10 years and are still practicing their s[k]ills in such a way” (2015, 386). Understood this way, Beilock’s experiments do not reveal the nature of expertise, because none of its participants are real experts. We still do not know whether professional experts would be able to produce detailed descriptions the steps they took to produce their putt or not if they participated in Beilock’s experiment.
Now, the argument from expert reports like the ones mentioned above, being merely anecdotal, is not very solid on its own. But it looks even more fragile when contrasted with other reports, like those found in studies that use retrospective methods (like diaries and verbal recollection) to find out what professional athletes think about while performing at their top level. When asked how they coped with pressure, it was found that “the most effective coping strategies that were used on a frequent basis were increasing concentration on task and increasing effort”; and to maintain high-quality performance in high-pressure situations, athletes report relying on “positive monitoring” strategies (such as “I focus on what I should do” and “I make sure that I work harder”).
Such reports seem to counter those in which experts claim not to know the whys or hows of their performances. It is likely that experts are unaware of why and how they structure their action components the way that they do (such structuring process consisting largely in automatic-associative responses to the practical environment’s solicitations), but one thing experts seem aware of is that to perform consistently in high-pressure situations they must stay focused on the performance itself (which implies inhibiting negative, task-external thoughts) and effortfully engage in the action. That experts describe skilled performance as effortful both physically and mentally suggests that expert action requires reflective, executive control of attention. Experts may be unaware of why and how they structure their movements during performance; but they do seem aware that in order to be able to do it, they must keep their focus on the task.
From this perspective, intellectualists can counter the anti-intellectualist interpretation of the statements of Larry Bird and others. Such statements need not be taken as evidence for the view that skilled action consists in merely automatic responses. Bird’s claim that many things he does in the court are but reactions to the situation may be taken to refer to his performance of action components rather than actions themselves; Payton’s statement that he does not know he does what he does is compatible with attention-control intellectualism; and in claiming that you cannot think and hit the ball at the same time, Berra may mean that you cannot hit properly when thinking about action sub-components or extraneous situational features—rather, you must focus on hitting itself.
Not all experts remain silent when asked what they do and how they do it. But when describing what they do in performance, they often mention rules they claim to follow, some of which have been found to misdescribe what they actually do. Some of the strongest evidence for such expert confabulation comes from the aforementioned study of cricket batters, according to which the popular ‘Keep your eyes on the ball’ rule—endorsed by many batters and coaches—does not coincide with what skilled performers do. Instead of following the ball, highly skilled performers perform predictive saccades to move the gaze ahead of the target, or catch up with it.
Additionally, cricket training makes special emphasis on the importance of watching the ball at the precise time of hitting it. This is particularly unlikely, given the high speed at which the ball travels. Batters have been found to track the ball during the first 0.2 seconds after it is released, leave it behind to make the predictive saccade, then loosely follow it as it approaches the bat, but ultimately lose it from sight near the end of its trajectory. Furthermore, predictive saccades make functional sense, since they help the batter predict the ball’s trajectory, thereby increasing likelihood of contact. Thus, experts seem wrong in reporting that they keep their eyes on the ball, that they do so at the crucial time of striking it, and even that dong it is what should be done.
That said, the Land & McLeod study seems susceptible to the same kind of terminological objection as those of Beilock and colleagues: ‘experts’ are roughly understood as ‘those participants with the highest degree of skill’. This assumes a merely quantitative difference between skill and expertise. Would true experts, i.e. world-class performers, reveal the same performance pattern?
Mann et al. (2013) tested this by comparing elite performers (players with some of the highest historical records in the game) with highly-skilled club-level performers (who play at local cricket clubs). They found a couple of relevant traits proper to elite performers. First, they consistently follow the ball throughout the whole trajectory with their heads, even if not with their eyes. Second, they make not one, but two predictive saccades: first toward the place where the ball may bounce, then toward the place where the ball may make contact with the bat. Crucially, the second saccade enables elite performers to see the ball as they hit it, much more reliably than club-level performers. Mann and colleagues compare elite batters’ capacity to follow the ball with their heads to a “miner’s torch” (2013, 6): imagining they had one, the light from the their torch would illuminate the ball throughout its whole trajectory. This ability seems to give elite players an advantage: it simplifies the cognitive problem of establishing the ball’s trajectory, since the ball’s position remains constant in egocentric space (relative to the head); so, since they already know where (in egocentric space) the ball will be, all they need to figure out is when the ball will reach them.
The ‘when’ is then specified by the second predictive saccade. In fact, a crucial difference between the two groups in the study is that elite batters moved their eyes so that they were always looking at the ball or ahead of the ball, whereas the eyes of club-level batters sometimes lagged behind, and had to make saccades to catch up with it. So only elite saccades truly deserve the name ‘predictive’: they anticipate the key moments and places of the ball’s trajectory.
Land and McLeod had concluded that skilled batters do not keep their eyes on the ball and fail to see the ball as it was hit, and that there is no “systematic difference” in eye movement between skill levels (2000, 3142), all of which would support expert confabulation. But the elite batters study puts it all into question. For one, it reveals that explicit coaching advice and performance rules are rather consistent with actual practice, since truly expert batters do watch the ball as they hit it, and they do keep their eyes on the ball throughout its trajectory, in the broad sense that the ball is always in the visual field (so it is at least peripherally visible at any time). If other cases of bodily expertise are similar, reported rules and performance may be much more consistent than previously thought.
Additionally, the study reveals a qualitative difference between real experts and merely skilled agents: experts make two saccades, whereas skilled players make only one, and only experts reliably watch the ball as they hit it. It is not just that experts are better at attending; they actually do different things with their attention.
In sum, there are reasons to doubt that the expert confabulation evidence proves the existence of confabulation in real experts.
After assessing the phenomena relative to Choking and The Yips, expertise-induced amnesia, and expert confabulation, the support of anti-intellectualism does not seem so solid. In fact, these phenomena have revealed that reflection’s involvement may be crucial in acting skillfully. This section offers a general argument for the view. I finish by considering whether there is something about skilled bodily action that anti-intellectualism cannot account for.
Evidence shows that while reflecting on the automated components of an action is harmful to performance (leading to The Yips), allowing reflection to drift away from the basic action itself also harms performance (leading to Choking). This suggests that reflective focus on basic actions may play a key role in unifying the different components of a basic skilled action. Further, although experts often claim ignoring why or how they do what they do, they seem to be clear about the fact that in order to do it they must make efforts to stay focused on their task, especially when under pressure. This further reinforces the view that reflection plays an attention-structuring role in the performance of skilled action. Finally, evidence from world-class experts does not support expert confabulation, rather revealing that in elite performers the general attention-orientation pattern largely coincides with explicit reports, and that differences in skill levels correlate with qualitative differences in ways of structuring attention.
From this reconsideration of psychological evidence emerges the view that top-down, intention-directed, reflective mental processes do play a necessary role in the production of skilled action, namely, the executive modulation of attention.
But why would this executive, top-down modulation be necessary? An anti-intellectualist might argue that this amounts to adding an otiose element to the explanation, since past training, automated routines and the normativity of automaticity can do all the explanatory work: skillful agentive control is no more than properly trained, norm-sensitive automatic behaviour.
To see why reflection (in the form of the executive control of attention) is necessary to fully account for skilled action performance, consider this example. When playing soccer with my good friend Lucho, a great number of the situation’s aspects could activate different automatic-associative behaviours, since my practical context is crowded with affordances (which I understand here roughly and intuitively as possibilities and invitations for action). Seeing Lucho in the field affords reaching and chatting with him. But he happens to be in the opposite team, and has just scored a goal, so noticing him around also elicits frustration and affords punching him. The acute soreness in my left foot affords taking the shoe off and staying still. And while I’m at it, the warm, sunny weather may also afford tumbling on the soft grass. My soccer skills (assuming I have any) also afford a set of potential moves conducive to a good performance.
Of all these possible sensory, affective, and motor affordances—all of which are part of my possible behavioural repertoire given my past habituation and automatic control—, how can I distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant in the moment? The crucial lesson so far is that achieving an appropriate distinction between relevant and irrelevant affordances is hardly possible, if at all, without the top-down modulation of attention on the basis of an occurrent goal or intention. I can focus on the soccer-based affordances only if I manage to inhibit the chatting, punching, resting, etc. affordances; and doing so implies reflective, inhibitory control. And as it turns out, I can perform this inhibition only as long as I attend to the representation of my current goal. Only through such top-down control of attention can the relevant features of the situation acquire the special glow, the mandatory character that “carries me forward as if by magic” (to use Csikszentmihalyi’s expression), or that “summons” the correct response from me (to use Dreyfus’ term). If attention is not hierarchically structured by this goal, all affordances would remain equally attractive, which entails that no affordance would really be all that attractive. Moreover, when the pressure is higher the task-irrelevant features have a greater intuitive salience, so inhibitory control (a limited capacity, like all executive functions) has a greater role to play.
It is because of that that anti-intellectualist descriptions of skilled action are incomplete. Take Merleau-Ponty’s classical description of a player’s experience of the field:
For the player in action the football field […] is pervaded with lines of force (the ‘yard lines’; those which demarcate the ‘penalty area’) and articulated in sectors (for example, the ‘openings’ between the adversaries) which call for a certain mode of action and which initiate and guide the action as if the player were unaware of it. […] The player becomes one with [the field] and feels the direction of the ‘goal’, for example, just as immediately as the vertical and the horizontal planes of his own body. (1942/1965, 168–169)
This description does away with reflection’s role in skillful action by mentioning only the task-relevant lines of force, and remaining silent about any others. But the field is usually pervaded with way too many lines of force, calling for way too many responses that could guide behaviour in all sorts of incoherent directions. Automatic control over the action’s subroutines is necessary to explain why the fields of force guide the action as if the player were unaware. But automatic control seems unable to explain why only the relevant lines of force guide skilled action, while action remains unaffected by irrelevant lines of force. The need to inhibit such lines of force, and select only those that are task-relevant, is the reason behind why experts recognize they have to effortfully direct attention to what they are doing. (They might otherwise explode in anger, take an untimely pause, go yell at some fans of the opposite team, have an emotional meltdown, etc.) The aspect of skilled action that remains unexplained by anti-intellectualism is the capacity to perform such inhibitory selection in the face of a myriad performance pressures, such that action components actually add up to a basic action instead of a bunch of disconnected behaviours. Prior practice and the normativity of automaticity can explain the subtleties and refinement of expert action components, but not the coherence of expert basic actions.
Thus skillful action needs reflection because orchestrating multiple automatic processes (sensory, cognitive, and motor) toward a unified action requires the modulation of attention. In this context, Wu’s (2011) suggestion that intentions are not mental events that play their causal role before action is produced (like a standard causal model would have it), but rather are structural causes synchronic with action, is quite useful. Intentions (understood broadly as representations [propositional or nonpropositional, conceptual or nonconceptual] of a goal to which the agent is committed) structure the agent’s web of possible mental associations in such a way that the relevant sensory, affective, and motor associations are primed to be more easily activated, while the activation value of irrelevant associations is decreased. Thus, by modulating the activation levels of automatic association patterns, the agent’s focus on her intention structures attention so that the relevant sensory features become salient, and hooked up with the relevant affective and motor routines. This is how I avoid hugging or punching Lucho while in the field (after the match I may do both), and instead anticipate his motions, steal the ball from him, and make a crucial pass to one of my teammates.
What emerges from the above discussion is a form of intellectualism not based on propositional knowledge of the reasons and the ability to answer Anscombean questions, but on the capacity to structure attention in relation to an intention. This intellectualist account, which we can call attentional-control intellectualism, can make Nakayama’s claims consistent: while performing, the expert’s mind is silent about how to perform and why—but it keeps attention focused on performance. This control of attention allows her to learn continuously; indeed continuous learning may be a necessary consequence of the constant focus of attention on the task at hand, in the sense that the refinement of attention is likely to lead to discovering novel nuances and action possibilities.
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 Intellectualism, thus defined, is arguably shared by most causal theories of action, from Davidson’s (1963) classical view to many recent ones (e.g. Pacherie (2008; 20011); Wu (2011); Shepherd (2014; 2015)). This definition differs from the most common meaning of ‘intellectualism’ in the skill literature, where it often refers to the view that knowing-how is not different from knowing-that, but rather a special subset of the latter (e.g. Stanley & Williamson 2001; Noë 2005; Stanley & Krakauer 2013). Accordingly, ‘anti-intellectualism’ is often taken to be the opposite claim that knowing-how is a kind of knowledge different from knowing-that. I use the terms in a different (though not entirely unrelated) way to try to capture the main views that have been proposed in the recent debate around skilled action.
 Nakayama’s statements are taken from the documentary Chef’s Table, directed by D. Gelb.
 Rietveld (2008); Brownstein & Madva (2012); Fridland (2015).
 See Slingerland (2003).
 E.g. Annas (2011, 17–18); Montero (2015); Wu (2015).
 Montero (2010; 2015); Sutton et al. (2011); Papineau (2014); Fridland (2014); Wu (2015). Many of these accounts respond to Dreyfus’ influential anti-intellectualist account of skillful coping (e.g. Dreyfus (2002), Dreyfus & Kelly (2007)).
 Sutton (2007); Di Nucci (2013); and especially Brownstein (2014) discuss these anti-intellectualist arguments.
 Velleman (2008); Railton (2009); Annas (2011).
 See also Dreyfus (2012).
 E.g. expert golfers who have been describing their technique need twice as many attempts to sink a putt than those who had previously performed an unrelated task (Flegal & Anderson 2008); expert golfers were more accurate when their attention was diverted from their own performance than when they were instructed to focus on it, while novice golfers presented the opposite pattern (Beilock et al. 2004).
 Term coined by Beilock & Carr (2001).
 Brownstein (2014, 555–6) reports these and several other expert testimonies indicative of expertise-induced amnesia.
 Beilock & Carr (2001). I assume a dual-process approach to human cognition, according to which automatic or intuitive processes are independent from, whereas reflective processes require, working memory. Notice that this dual-process approach is significantly different from coarser dual-system approaches. (On the general outlook, and the difference between dual-system and dual-process accounts, see Evans (2008; 2010); Evans & Stanovich (2013). On the concept of working memory, see Baddeley (2007).)
 Land & McLeod (2000).
 Fridland (2014).
 E.g. Logan (1985); Dreyfus (2002); Brownstein (2014).
 Annas (2011) and Montero (2015) make distinctions along these lines. Papineau (2014) proposes an analogous difference between “practice” (where the performer may automatically go along with the motions) and “competitive performance” (where the performer must keep her reflective focus on the task to seek any possible advantage).
 Baumeister (1984); Beilock & Gray (2007).
 Beilock & Carr (2001); DeCaro et al. (2011); Montero (2015).
 Beilock & Carr (2001).
 They define the contrast between novices and experts differently in several experiments. In this case, novices were participants with no previous golf experience, and experts were “local high school and college students with 2 or more years of high-school varsity golf experience or a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) handicap less than 8”. (2002, 1214).
 Nicholls et al. (2006).
 Oudejans et al. (2011).
 Moreover, there is evidence that this (i.e. using predictive saccades instead of directly following the ball) occurs not only in cricket (Land & McLeod 2000; Croft et al. 2010). Baseball (Bahill & LaRitz 1984), table tennis (Ripoll & Fleurance 1988), and soccer (Savelsbergh et al. 2002) performers seem to do it too.
 Land & McLeod (2000, 1342). See also Bahill & LaRitz (1984); Ripoll & Fleurance (1988).
 Participants were “Mark, a professional cricketer who has opened the batting for Warwickshire, Charlie, a successful amateur who plays Minor Counties cricket for Oxfordshire, and Richard, an enthusiastic but incompetent amateur who plays low-level club cricket” (2000, 1345).
 This is congenial to views recently developed by Wu (2011; 2015); Fridland (2014; 2015); and Shepherd (2014; 2015).
 Munakata et al. (2011) provide a conceptual framework to understand how the inhibition of irrelevant features and the selection of relevant features are two aspects of the same inhibitory process. Inhibitory control is a downstream effect of representing one’s current goal (a task associated with prefrontal-cortex areas), and it comes in two main varieties: the direct inhibition of neural activity in subcortical areas that would interfere with the task, and the direct excitation of goal-related neural activity in some areas which then indirectly inhibits potentially distracting neural activity by outcompeting it. This accounts for how the executive, intention-directed control of attention is crucial in both inhibiting irrelevant features and selecting relevant features, therefore making coherent, unified intentional action possible.