Trust Me, I'm an Expert

Why is it so hard to trust advice we don't like?

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock
Source: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Trust, the glue that holds society together, is in short supply right now, just as people all over the world are being asked to trust official policies about the pandemic. The policies themselves are highly controversial, seen by some as an intrusion on personal liberty and by others as selling public health for profit. Can we hear even the most expert advice objectively in this climate?

Two studies shed light on the way personal views affect our trust in expert advice. Mercifully, for those of us combatting pandemic-fatigue, these studies are not about viruses or pandemics. The first one is about spanking and car seats. 180 parents in 41 U.S. states read news articles either about the controversial topic of spanking, or a topic parents tend to agree onusing car seats. The articles contained expert and lay comments which were either pro or anti-spanking. Parents with pro-spanking views trusted the lay commentators with pro-spanking views more than the experts with anti-spanking views. But all parents trusted the experts when talking about car seats.

And herein lies the problem with expert opinions on controversial topics. Once strong personal opinions come into the mix it is hard to take experts that disagree with those views seriously. Around half of parents in the U.S. and U.K. spank their young children. Rather than expert opinion, parents often turn to lay comments on twitter, using terms such as smack, slap, whoop, beat, hit, punch, swat, pop, and tap.

A Brazilian study looked deeper into the problem. They gave people expert opinions ranging from the highly controversial (on presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s policies) to the more mundane (major brands of laptops). They also gave clear clues that the experts had vested interests in persuading people to their point of view, such as getting a position in Bolsanaro’s government if elected or having major shares in a brand. But even when people could clearly see these ulterior motives people tended to trust the expert opinion that reflected their own opinion.

Not only that but people judged the expert with a different view to themselves as less trustworthy—less expert. This makes sense in that if the expert isn’t really an expert then it’s easier to disregard what they are saying. So, we generally upgrade lay opinions we agree with, disregard ulterior motives of experts we don’t agree with and downgrade the expertise of experts we don’t agree with. The outlook for rational debate isn’t looking look good. But hang on—there’s hope yet.  

Being persuaded to change your mind can feel like your core sense of self – who you are—is being challenged and manipulated: it feels threatening. It’s natural to resist threats like this. So, in order to really ‘hear’ different views, maybe we have to feel less threatened by them. To test this, the Brazilian researchers repeated their experiment with expert opinions, but this time some people practiced self-affirmation beforehand—they were made to feel good about themselves.

To do this, people were asked to rank a randomised list of qualities according to personal relevance. Here’s the list if you want to try it:

  • Artistic skills/aesthetic appreciation
  • Sense of humor
  • Relationship with friends/family
  • Spontaneity/living in the moment
  • Social skills
  • Athletics
  • Musical ability/appreciation
  • Physical attractiveness
  • Creativity
  • Business/managerial skills

After choosing their best qualities, people then wrote about three or four times in their lives when they had used these qualities and felt good about themselves.

Now, when considering expert opinions, those that had practiced self-affirmation were less likely to downgrade the opinions they didn’t agree with. They were also more likely to judge experts they did agree with as unreliable when it was clear they had ulterior motives to persuade us to their views. When we feel good about ourselves, confident in our sense of self and less threatened, we are better able to make rational, objective judgments about who to trust and why.

References

Scott, J. K., & Gershoff, E. T. (2020, July 13). Trust in Expert Versus Lay Comments in Online Articles About Spanking and Car Seat Safety. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000784

Lee, J.Y., Grogan-Kaylor, A.C., Lee, S.J. et al. (2020). A Qualitative Analysis of Stay-At-Home Parents’ Spanking Tweets. J Child Fam Stud 29, 817–830. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01691-3

Grillo, T. L. H., & Pizzutti, C. (2020). Recognizing and Trusting Persuasion Agents: Attitudes Bias Trustworthiness Judgments, but not Persuasion Detection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220946197