Top performers don’t always provide the best advice

By Emma Young

If you want to learn a new skill, who are you going to ask for advice? Someone with a track record as a top performer would seem an obvious choice. Indeed, as the authors of a new paper in Psychological Science point out, Americans alone pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year “to connect them to ‘icons, experts and industry rock stars’ who will teach them to write novels, start businesses, play chess or barbecue brisket, and they pay these premiums because they naturally believe that the best advice comes from the best performers.” However, this new work, led by David E. Levari at Harvard Business School, suggests that it does not.

In an initial study, over 1,000 online participants played a game called Word Scramble. They had 60 seconds to find as many words as possible in a 4×4 board of 16 letters. There were a few rules: the words had to be formed from contiguous letter tiles; no square could be used more than once in each word; any English word of three letters or more was allowed, except for proper nouns.

After they’d played three rounds (with the letter board changing each time), participants were told that 100 previous participants, who’d each played six rounds, had written advice for future players. They were then asked which of these players’ advice they’d like to see, or which they expected to be most helpful.

The team found that, overall, most participants wanted to receive advice from the top performers, because they believed top performers would give the best quality advice. This study affirmed the existence of a belief that many people clearly already have. But it was an important first step in the team’s investigation.

Next, a fresh group of participants played six rounds of Word Scramble. The team noticed that the players did get better over time. This certainly suggests that performing well on this game requires some skill, which might in theory be trained by good advice. The players then wrote down some advice for future participants, and also rated the quality of their own advice, and how helpful they expected it to be.

The analysis showed that the best performers believed that they had given the best advice. However, when pieces of advice were then given to a fresh group of players, this turned out not to be the case: players who were given advice from the best performers didn’t improve at the game any more than players given advice from from other performers. 

The researchers also report a fascinating extra finding from this study: the second group of players rated advice that had come from the top performers as being the best — even though they had no knowledge of these people’s performance.

In a fresh study, the team considered some possible explanations for this. Perhaps the top performers gave more articulate or more authoritative advice, for example. In fact, they found that it was the number of independent suggestions that mattered — and top performers offered more. “In short, advice from the best performers was not better. It just sounded better because there was more of it.”

Why might top performers not offer more useful advice? A person’s performance level and their communication skills do not necessarily tally, the team points out. They also suggest another possibility: a greater number of suggestions might have been more valuable, if only the recipients had been able to absorb and act on all of them. Perhaps they were only able to follow one good suggestion at a time, making less extensive advice just as helpful. “Do our results, then, suggest that people are wasting their time and money when they seek advice from the best performers? Yes, sometimes. But not always.”

Of course, their study focused on “how to do” something, whereas, as they point out, sometimes we just want advice on “what to do”. For example, even if a billionaire stock market investor can’t teach other people how to invest, their tips on what to invest in may still be worth heeding.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the recipients of the Word Scramble advice didn’t benefit from more extensive advice in the short term, over a longer term, it might have been a different story. Given more time to absorb and implement lots of good suggestions, recipients of that advice might have done better. This research did not explore this.

The team does stress, however, that their results shouldn’t be taken to mean that an advisor’s performance is never a useful indicator of the quality of their advice. “Rather, they simply suggest that in at least some ordinary situations in which ordinary people expect the best-performing advisors to provide the best performance advice, those ordinary people are likely to be mistaken. Tips from the top are not always worth top dollar.”

Tips From the Top: Do the Best Performers Really Give the Best Advice?

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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