The 2-Minute Thought: When to Heed Advice from Others

In her 2013 book, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino describes an experiment she did with Don Moore, a colleague at the University of California, Berkeley.  In the study, participants were shown pictures of people and asked to estimate their weight.  Half the participants received pictures that were in focus and half got pictures that were blurry.  But participants got to guess the weight of the person in the picture twice: Once they made a guess on their own.  The second time, they were offered advice from another randomly chosen participant in the study.

Though the participants didn’t know it, the real purpose of the study was to learn more about when people take advice from others and when they ignore it.  Here were the results:  

When participants looked at the pictures that were in focus (the easier task), they largely ignored the advice of others – even though they would have done better to heed it.  Had they incorporated the advice received into their second guess, the accuracy of their estimates, on average, would have improved. 

In contrast, for the more difficult task of assessing the blurry pictures, participants relied too heavily on the advice of others while discounting their own opinions too much. And yet, the value of the advice was no different from what they were offered in the case of the clear pictures: It still came from another randomly selected participant who was no better informed than the participant him- or herself.

The suggestion from Gino and Moore’s study is that we tend to undervalue advice from others when facing an easy problem, but overvalue advice when facing a difficult problem.  That leads to suboptimal decision making.  There are countless examples in history of leaders who should have listened to the advice of counselors but didn’t, and of individuals who rightfully went against the crowd to follow their own opinions.

In the study’s first case, when people chose to ignore the advice of others -- even though it would have led to better outcomes – Gino suggests this happens because we’re overconfident and “we find the opinions of others to be less compelling and less convincing than our own.”  There’s a wealth of research out there that shows we think of ourselves as being more competent, healthier, and luckier than others.  It’s a very human trait.

When it comes to hard tasks or complex situations, however, perhaps our confidence crumbles too quickly.  While this doesn’t mean we should ignore the advice of others – perhaps we should be more aware of our tendency to discount our own opinions excessively in these situations. 

In addition, Gino also has found that there are other factors that cause us to overvalue the advice of others in irrational ways in certain situations.  One is that we overvalue advice from others when we pay for it – and the more we pay, the more we overvalue it, even though it’s the same advice.  Another is when we feel others have power over us, rather than us having power over others, we also overvalue the opinions of others.  In contrast, when we feel we hold the power, we overvalue our own opinions.   

Of course, how we choose to use and value the advice of others is always complex.  But it’s worth remembering what Gino writes:

“ . . .when you think the solution to a problem is simple, and you find yourself waving off advice givers, think again.  You may know a lot about the issue, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the opinions of others who know a lot, too.  And when you’re struggling with a challenging problem and receive advice that is odds with your own impulses, ask yourself whether you’re overvaluing that counsel.  Beware of being too willing to listen to those who are no better informed than you are.”