Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist who demystified how expertise is acquired, suggesting that anyone can become a grand chess master, a concert violinist or an Olympic athlete with the proper training and the will, died on June 17 at his home in Tallahassee, Fla. He was 72.
His wife, Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, said the likely cause was a blood clot to his heart or brain.
As Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, authors of the book “Freakonomics,” explained in a 2006 profile of Professor Ericsson in The New York Times, his scholarly aim was “trying to answer an important and seemingly primordial question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?”
One of Professor Ericsson’s best-known studies involved violinists at the Academy of Music in Berlin. He and two colleagues divided music students into three groups: those who had the chops to be world-class performers, those who were very good and those who planned to become music teachers.
Professor Ericsson discovered that what separated the violinists’ skill levels was not natural-born talent but the hours of practice they had logged since childhood. The future teachers registered around 4,000 hours, the very good violinists 8,000 and the elite performers more than 10,000 hours. The same study was conducted with pianists, with similar results.
Published in 1993 in Psychological Review, the paper later formed the basis for the so-called 10,000-hour rule described in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (2008), which holds that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a skill or field. The best-selling book popularized Professor Ericsson’s research, even as it irritated him because he felt it oversimplified his findings.
“Many people think what Anders discovered is that quantity of practice makes you a champion,” said Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Grit” (2016), a book about passion and perseverance. “That’s disastrously incomplete. It’s quantity and quality. One of his insights that I hope will have a lasting legacy is people need to work hard, but also smart.”
Professor Ericsson focused on what he called “deliberate practice,” which entails immediate feedback, clear goals and focus on technique. According to his research, the lack of deliberate practice explained why so many people reach only basic proficiency at something, whether it be a sport, pastime or profession, without ever attaining elite status. A Sunday golfer may whack balls around the course for years, but without incorporating such methods, that player will never become the next Tiger Woods.
Over his career, Professor Ericsson studied conservatory musicians, chess masters, spelling bee champions, surgeons, ballerinas, runners, professional baseball players and others, seeking out subjects who demonstrated what he characterized as “objectively reproducible performance.” He peppered them with questions, instructed them to keep diaries and studied their routines in minute detail.
In doing so, Professor Ericsson spearheaded the field of performance studies and became “the expert on experts,” as he was often called.
Never once did he come across an elite performer who hadn’t put in the work, he told Larry King in 2016: “This idea that somebody more or less discovers, suddenly, that they’re extremely good at something, I’ve yet to find even a single example of that type of phenomenon.”
In providing a scientific framework for Yo-Yo Ma’s otherworldly cello playing or Michael Jordan’s superhuman basketball moves, Professor Ericsson removed some of the mystery around genius. He “democratized excellence,” Ms. Duckworth said. “Anders completely revolutionized our ideas of what’s possible for most people.”
Karl Anders Ericsson was born on Oct. 23, 1947, in Stockholm. His mother, Ingrid (Larsson) Ericsson, was a homemaker. His father, Karl Ericsson, was an engineer who helped build a waste disposal system in Stockholm that whisks away trash in underground vacuum tubes.
When he was a boy, Professor Ericsson once recalled, his father told him a story about the Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini, who was playing a concert when one, two, then three of his strings broke. He was able to finish the concert using one string, wowing the audience. Later, Professor Ericsson discovered that Paganini had practiced how to compose music on a single string.
He was fascinated with how the mind worked. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Stockholm in cognitive psychology in 1976, and one year later he was invited by Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning cognitive psychologist, to become a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
An early breakthrough came there, when Professor Ericsson tested the limits of human memory. He hired a summer intern, a student with an average I.Q., and read a string of numbers to him each day. He would ask the student to repeat the numbers back and to explain how he remembered them, a method called verbal protocol.
As recounted in Professor Ericsson’s book “Peak” (2016), the student could recall in excess of 80 digits by the end of the summer, far more than what was then believed a typical person could memorize.
At Florida State University, where he went in 1992 and remained until his death, Professor Ericsson would ask students to choose a new skill, like juggling, and to practice it during the semester, to prove that they could do something previously thought unlearnable.
As his research became more widely respected, Professor Ericsson was hired to consult with professional sports teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Twins and England’s Manchester City soccer club, and to speak to organizations like Google and the Central Intelligence Agency — each looking for a performance edge he might offer.
He had his critics. One of them, Zachary Hambrick, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, co-authored a paper in 2014 that concluded that deliberate practice was not the sole reason for peak performance in chess players and musicians. Innate characteristics like talent and intelligence, Mr. Hambrick argued, play a far more significant role than Professor Ericsson allowed for.
“There’s a side of me that resonates with his hopeful message,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist who studies creativity and hosts “The Psychology Podcast.” “However, there’s another side of me that has seen the research in a wide range of aspects in the field, that suggests that we can have some pretty severe limits on what we can achieve in life.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Kaufman added, “I don’t think any of this invalidates his contributions. He showed that humans have the capacity to go beyond, from one generation to the next, what had been thought of the limits of human potential.”
In addition to his wife, Professor Ericsson is survived by two children from a previous marriage, Jens and Lina Ericsson; a brother, Lasse Ericsson; a sister, Kerstin Loden; and a grandson.
Professor Ericsson never applied his methods to himself to become a guitar virtuoso or an ace tennis player. Rather, he was focused exclusively on science.
“If I could psychoanalyze him, I’d say he was interested in becoming the best at what he was doing,” said Ms. Sachs-Ericsson, a scientist scholar at Florida State. “I can’t tell you how many books he read. My house is head to toe books. He read everything.”