The best performers don’t always give the best advice

When you want advice on how to achieve something, who would you rather ask: the best performer in the area or someone who is barely getting by? Most people would choose the best performer. That person’s advice, however, may no longer be helpful.

“Skillful performance and skillful teaching are not always the same thing, so we should not expect that the best performers are necessarily the best teachers,” said David Levari (Harvard Business School), lead author of a recent study. Psychological Science article.

In four studies, he and co-authors APS Fellows Daniel T. Gilbert (Harvard University) and Timothy D. Wilson (University of Virginia) found that top performers do not give better advice than other performers, at least in some areas. Instead, they just give more of it.

“People seem to confuse quantity with quality,” the researchers wrote. “Our studies suggest that in at least some cases, people may overestimate advice from top performers.”

In the first study, Levari and colleagues set out to determine whether people believe that an advisor’s performance is a strong indicator of the quality of their advice.

More than 1,100 participants, sourced from Amazon Mechanical Turk, were told they would play a game called Word Scramble and then answer questions about it. Shown a table of letters, participants were given 60 seconds to form as many words as possible. Participants played three rounds, each time with a different letter board.

The researchers then asked the participants to choose which counselors they would prefer to receive advice from to improve on the job. Participants showed a strong preference for the best performers regardless of how the question was asked (eg, in a free-choice or forced-choice format).

In the second study, the researchers investigated whether the top performers actually gave the best advice. They asked 100 “advisors” to play six rounds of Word Scramble, write advice for prospective players and rate the quality of their advice. The best performers believed they had given the best advice.

In the same study, another 2,085 participants were randomly assigned to either an advice or no advice condition. After playing one round of Word Scramble, participants in the advice condition received direction from a random adviser, then played another five rounds. Unadvised participants played six rounds without feedback. Advisers performed better after receiving advice, and they tended to perform better with each subsequent round. But advice from top performers was no more helpful, on average, than advice from other performers. The researchers conducted a similar study with arrows, showing a similar pattern of results.

“In our experiments, people who were given advice from top performers thought it helped them more, even though it usually didn’t. Surprisingly, they thought this even though they knew nothing about the people who wrote their advice”, said Levari.

The researchers conducted two more studies to understand why advice from top performers sounded better. Two university research assistants, who were blind to the aims and hypotheses of the study, coded the advice for seven characteristics: authoritativeness, actionability, articulability, clarity, number of suggestions, “should” suggestions, and “don’t” suggestions. Each property was analyzed for perceived usefulness and perceived improvement.

Only one feature—number of suggestions—consistently predicted both perceived usefulness and perceived improvement of advice. However, there was no correlation between the number of suggestions and the efficiency of the advice.

“Top performers didn’t write the most useful tips, but they wrote more of them, and people in our experiments confused quantity for quality,” Levari told APS.

So why wasn’t the advice more helpful? Levari and colleagues have some ideas.

First, skilled performers may overlook basic advice because “natural talent and extensive practice have made conscious thought unnecessary. … A natural-born pitcher who has played baseball every day since childhood might not think to tell a beginner about something they consider completely intuitive, such as balance and grip,” they wrote.

Second, top performers may not be skilled communicators. “Even when a great performer has clear information to share, they may not be particularly good at sharing it,” the researchers wrote. Finally, a large amount of advice may be more than can actually be implemented.

“We spend a lot of time and money seeking good advice, whether it’s from peers and coaches, teachers and tutors, or friends and family,” Levari said. “Next time you get advice, you might want to think less about how much of it there was, and more about how much of it you could actually use.”

Reference: Levari DE, Gilbert DT, Wilson TD. Advice from above: Do the best performers really give the best advice? Psychol Sci. 2022; 33 (5): 685-698. doi: 10.1177/09567976211054089

This article is reprinted from the following mATERIALS. Note: Material may have been edited for length and content. For more information, please contact the source cited.

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