How to get (and give) better advice

CARNEGIE MELLON/ DUKE (US) — Advisers feel more empathy and may be more motivated to offer unbiased advice when they are advising one known recipient, rather than an anonymous group, new research shows.

Professionals love to give advice. Financial analysts give public recommendations to buy, hold, or sell stock, and medical experts formulate clinical guidelines that affect many patients.

“Logically people should be more concerned about the advice they give to multiple recipients than to single recipients since it will affect the welfare of more people,” notes Sunita Sah, a post-doctoral associate at Duke University who worked on the research while completing her PhD with George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“But people feel more empathetic toward a single, identified, advice recipient, so they tend to put more care into the advice and behave less selfishly than they do if there are many recipients.”


“It is a perfect example of how emotional reactions to situations can often drive us to do exactly the opposite of what logic would prescribe,” Loewenstein says.

For the study, published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, Sah and Loewenstein conducted two experiments in which subjects, acting as advisers, gave advice to other subjects (estimators). Those playing the role of advisers viewed a 30 x 30 grid of dots, some filled and some clear, and gave advice to the estimator or estimators on the number of filled dots.

Estimators had to estimate the number of filled dots in the large grid, but only viewed a 3 x 3 subset of the grid. A “conflict of interest” between the two parties was created by paying the estimators more if their estimates were accurate but paying advisers more based on how much the estimators overestimated the number of filled dots.

In the first experiment, advisers were told the name and age of the single estimator for the “identified” condition, whereas no such information was provided for the “unidentified” condition, and the adviser only knew the estimator as “the estimator.” Advisers gave more inflated advice when they were not given the identifying information about the estimators, a result that is consistent with prior research showing that identification leads to greater sympathy toward a potential victim.

The second experiment repeated the identification manipulation of the first, and also compared advisers who gave advice to a single advice recipient (identified or not identified) or to a group of advice recipients (also identified or not identified).

They replicated the results from the first experiment, and also found that advisers gave more biased advice to groups than to individuals, even though in the former case more people would be adversely affected by the biased advice.

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