WASHINGTON — When in need of some guidance, most people immediately look for an expert on the topic. Surprisingly, however, researchers with the Association for Psychological Science find that many experts don’t actually give “better” advice than others — they just give more of it.
“Skillful performance and skillful teaching are not always the same thing, so we shouldn’t expect the best performers to necessarily be the best teachers as well,” says lead study author David Levari of Harvard Business School in a media release.
Across four experiments, a team of scientists from Harvard University and the University of Virginia observed that the top performers in some fields tend to give out lots of advice, but quantity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality.
“People seem to mistake quantity for quality,” study authors write. “Our studies suggest that in at least in some instances, people may overvalue advice from top performers.”
People want to hear from the best at their craft
The first experiment attempted to determine if people really believe an advisor’s performance is a robust indicator of how helpful their advice will be. Over 1,100 people volunteered to play a game called “Word Scramble” and then answer questions about the experience. Players received a board of letters and had a full minute to form as many words as possible. Each participant played three rounds and each round featured a different assortment of letters.
Next, study authors asked participants to choose an advisor they would like to get some advice from on how to improve their performance. Predictably, the group tended to want advice from the best performing players, regardless of how researchers asked the question (for example, in a free-choice or forced-choice format).
The second study set out to determine if the best performers really did give the best advice. A group of 100 “advisors” had to play six rounds of Word Scramble, write out some advice for future players, and then rate the quality of their own guidance. The best performers generally believed they gave the best advice possible.
Another experiment featured 2,085 people randomly assigned to either an advice or a no-advice group. After playing a single round of Word Scramble, participants in the advice group received advice from a random advisor and then played five more rounds. Meanwhile, the no-advice group just played six rounds without any feedback.
People in the advice group did indeed perform better after getting some guidance, and their performances tended to improve round by round. However, on average, researchers say the advice coming from the best players was not any more helpful than others’ suggestions. A similar study using the game of darts revealed a similar pattern.
“In our experiments, people given advice by top performers thought that it helped them more, even though it usually didn’t. Surprisingly, they thought this even though they didn’t know anything about the people who wrote their advice,” Levari explains.
Experts can’t share their ‘natural talent’ with others
Study authors conducted two more experiments, with the team hoping to better understand why advice from top performers is so attractive. A pair of undergraduate research assistants who were unaware of the study’s purposes and hypotheses coded the advice for seven distinct properties: authoritativeness, actionability, articulateness, obviousness, number of suggestions, “should” suggestions, and “should not” suggestions. Researchers then analyzed each one of those properties according to perceived helpfulness and perceived improvement.
Only a single property, number of suggestions, consistently predicted both perceived helpfulness and the perceived improvement of the advice. Importantly, though, the study did not find a correlation between the number of suggestions and the efficacy of the advice.
“Top performers didn’t write more helpful advice, but they did write more of it, and people in our experiments mistook quantity for quality,” Levari tells APS.
As far as why the experts’ advice wasn’t more helpful, study authors have a few theories.
The research team explains that skilled performers tend to overlook fundamental advice because “natural talent and extensive practice have made conscious thought unnecessary. A natural-born slugger who has played baseball every day since childhood may not think to tell a rookie about something they find utterly intuitive, such as balance and grip.”
Also, top-notch performers aren’t always the best communicators.
“Even when an excellent performer does have explicit information to share, they may not be especially adept at sharing it,” study authors add.
Additionally, a large quantity of advice may be too much to realistically implement.
“We spend a lot of time and money looking for good advice, whether from coworkers and coaches, teachers and tutors, or friends and family,” Levari concludes. “The next time you get advice, you may want to think less about how much of it there was, and more about how much of it you could actually use.”
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.