How the “Cafeteria of Experience” Impacts Our Development

How the “Cafeteria of Experience” Impacts Our Development

Education January 13, 2021 / By Dr. Jonathan Wai
How the “Cafeteria of Experience” Impacts Our Development

Without sufficient opportunity attaining expertise is highly unlikely.

In an excellent new book titled The Science of Expertise, Elliot Tucker-Drob has a very clearly written chapter describing “Theoretical concepts in the genetics of expertise.” How he describes the importance of a variety of possible experiences to which an individual has access to is particularly insightful when attempting to understand how we develop:

The “cafeteria of experience” (Lykken et al., 1993) refers to the assorted variety of possible experiences to which individuals have access, just as in a dining hall cafeteria where an assortment of food options is available from which to choose. Each individual may choose a different set of experiences (or food items) from the cafeteria, but in a given cafeteria, the same experiences (or food items) are available to everyone.

Tucker-Drob goes on to describe a foundational study which describes how as we get older we increasingly have more autonomy as we make choices, or how “people make their own environments”:

Scarr and McCartney (1983) proposed that, as infants develop into children, children into adolescents, and adolescents into adults, increasing autonomy to select and evoke environments within their surroundings may lead to increasing differentiation of experience and skill by genotype.

However, the diversity of experiences are not uniform for people from
different backgrounds, which can impact whether someone with talent for a particular domain will have the opportunity to acquire the necessary experiences to become an expert:

Keeping with the cafeteria analogy, we would anticipate that the diversity of experiences from which to choose increases over child development. However, not all individuals have access to the same cafeteria or variety of experiences from which to choose. For instance, some children are never given the opportunity to take piano lessons, or even place their fingers on a piano. In such a case, no matter what an individual’s drive, desire, or aptitude for learning piano may be, it is highly unlikely that she or he will be able to engage in piano training or to practice to the extent necessary to become an expert pianist.

This passage may help explain why income advantaged gifted kids are more likely to develop to their full potential, whereas income disadvantaged gifted kids are not (e.g., Wai & Worrell, 2016):

Thus, one would expect that genetic influences on skilled performance would be most expressed in contexts of high access to the experiences and resources necessary for accruing expertise in the domain under study (Briley & Tucker-Drob, 2015). Indeed there is some evidence that such a pattern applies to the heritability of cognitive ability as a function of socioeconomic opportunity (Tucker-Drob & Bates, 2016). Importantly, the availability of experiences and resources does not guarantee that expertise will be attained (genetically influenced drives and aptitudes are likely to be the other key ingredients), but without a sufficient cafeteria of experience, attaining expert skill levels is predicted to be exceedingly unlikely.


Briley, D. A., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2015). Comparing the developmental genetics of cognition and personality over the life span. Journal of Personality, 85, 51-64.

Hambrick, D. Z., Campitelli, G., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). The science of expertise: Behavioral, neural, and genetic approaches to complex skill. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lykken, D. T., Bouchard, T. J., McGue, M., & Tellegen, A. (1993). Heritability of interests: A twin study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 649-661.

Scarr, S., & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype→ environment effects. Child Development, 54, 424-435.

Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). Theoretical concepts in the genetics of expertise. In D. Z. Hambrick, G. Campitelli, & B. N. Macnamara (Eds.), The science of expertise: Behavioral, neural, and genetic approaches to complex skill. (pp. 241-252). New York, NY: Routledge.

Tucker-Drob, E. M., & Bates, T. C. (2016). Large cross-national differences in gene x socioeconomic status interaction on intelligence. Psychological Science, 27, 138-149.

Wai, J., & Worrell, F. C. (2016). Helping disadvantaged and spatially talented students fulfill their potential: Related and neglected national resources. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 122-128.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

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