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The Most Successful People Do Not Give the Best Advice

Researchers examine the relationship between advice quality and performance.

Key points

  • Many believe they should seek the advice of those who know how to do it very well (i.e., the best performers) to learn to do something.
  • New research indicates that the best performers do not give higher-quality advice compared to others.
  • The new study suggests that the best performers give more advice than others, and people may mistake quantity for quality.
12019/Pixabay
Source: 12019/Pixabay

A recent study by Levari et al. from Harvard University and the University of Virginia questions the assumptions that the best performers (e.g., most successful authors, singers, chess players, business people) give the best advice.

The research, published in the May issue of Psychological Science, is summarized below.

Investigating the Value of Advice From the Best Performers

Study 1

Sample: 1,092; 606 females; the average age of 35 years old; Mechanical Turk workers (same for other samples).

Procedure: Participants were asked to play a word game called Word Scramble (a word-finding game) and predict the relationship between an advisor’s performance and the quality of his or her advice.

The advisors were individuals who had played six rounds of the game and were instructed to write advice for new players.

Findings: Data analysis showed most participants expected the performance of advisors to be a good indicator of the quality of their guidance.

Study 2

Sample (advisors): 78; 38 males; mean age of 36 years old.

Sample (advisees): 2,064; 890 males; mean age of 33 years old.

Procedure: To determine whether top performers really offer the best advice, participants were instructed to play Word Scramble and then write guidance for future players.

The guidance included a variety of tactics, strategies, and tricks (e.g., look for short words, think about suffixes and prefixes). These suggestions were then given to new players (advisees).

Findings: Receiving advice improved performance. But contrary to what advisees thought, guidance from best performers, though helpful, was no more beneficial than guidance from other advisors.

Study 3

Sample: 298; 152 males; mean age of 34 years old.

Procedure: Participants were asked to play the word game, read the suggestions provided by advisors in the previous investigation, and (without implementing them) guess the advice’s effectiveness.

Findings: Data analysis showed a relationship between estimates of the effectiveness of an advisor’s suggestion and his or her performance in the earlier investigation. Therefore, it seems the most successful performers gave advice that at least sounded better.

Study 4

Procedure: As we saw in the previous experiments, the most successful performers gave advice that sounded better, but this did not correlate with the actual effectiveness of their suggestions (i.e., when implemented).

Why does advice from the best performers appear to be effective?

To answer this question, researchers measured seven characteristics of the advice given by Study 2 advisors. These seven properties were:

  • Authoritativeness
  • Actionability
  • Articulateness
  • Obviousness
  • The number of suggestions
  • “Should” suggestions
  • “Should not” suggestions

The pieces of advice from the second investigation were then coded by two research assistants.

Findings: The results showed the more successful performers made more suggestions. And advisees believed that advice containing a larger number of suggestions helped improve performance erroneously.

Do the most successful performers give the best advice?

Many of us prefer to receive advice from individuals who are exceptionally good at what they do. We seek the most successful athletes, doctors, lawyers, chess players, business people, musicians, artists, dancers, singers, etc.

But are their recommendations actually better than the recommendations of average people? Perhaps not.

In the above studies, participants erroneously expected top performers' advice to be “more helpful before they implemented it.” And believed “it had been more helpful after they implemented it,” despite knowing “nothing about their advisor’s performance.”

In reality, “Advice from the best-performing advisors was no more helpful than advice from any other advisors.”

So why did participants, like many of us, assume the advice would be better? Analysis of data showed advice from top performers sounded better because there was more of it.

Of course, it is rational to expect the greatest tips and tricks to come from the most successful players. So why didn’t they?

12019/Pixabay
Source: 12019/Pixabay

Here are some potential reasons:

  • Lack of conscious awareness: Whether due to natural talent or many years of practice, excellent performers may not be consciously aware of all the little things they do that help them excel.
  • Communication and perspective-taking difficulties: Even if skilled performers have tips and tricks to share, they may not be able to take the perspective of novices (or recall the challenges they once faced) in order to communicate useful information.
  • Giving too many suggestions: Maybe expert advisors actually provided helpful and actionable recommendations that, if followed, would have resulted in improved performance. Why were they not followed? Potentially because there was too much of it. As a result, it was not more effective than the limited advice given by less skilled performers.

Does this mean it is a waste of money or time to seek advice from the best performers? It depends.

As the authors note, these studies focused on performance or “how to do” advice, which differs from decision-making or “what to do” advice.

After all, “Even if Warren Buffett cannot effectively teach people how to invest, his stock tips may be worth heeding.”

In summary, these findings illustrate why it is wrong to expect the best performers to necessarily offer the best performance advice.

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