According to recent research, advice given by top performers doesn’t always help more than people expect. The study’s findings were published in Psychological Science. When you’re looking for advice on achieving something, who would you ask: the top performer in that area or the hard-to-scraper? Most people will pick the top performer. However, that person’s advice may not be helpful anymore.
“Skilled performance and efficient teaching are not always the same thing, so we shouldn’t expect even the best performers to be the best teachers,” said lead author David Levery (Harvard Business School) of a recent Psychological Science article. In four studies, he and APS Fellow Daniel T. Gilbert (Harvard University) and Timothy D. Wilson (University of Virginia) found that top performers do not give better advice than other artists, at least in some domains. Rather, they give it more.
“People seem to mistake quantity for quality,” the researchers wrote. “Our study shows that, at least in some cases, people may overestimate the advice of top performers.”
In the first study, Levery and colleagues set out to determine whether people believed mentor performance is a strong indicator of the quality of their mentoring.
More than 1,100 participants were told through Amazon Mechanical Turk that they would play a game called Word Scramble and then answer questions about it. Shown a board of letters, participants were given 60 seconds to form as many words as possible.
Participants played three rounds, each time with a different board of letters. The researchers then asked the participants to choose which advisor they would like to consult to get better at the task. Participants showed a strong preference for the best performers, regardless of how the question was asked (ie, in a free-choice or forced-choice format).
In the second study, researchers explored whether the best performers actually gave the best advice. He asked 100 “advisors” to play six rounds of word scrambles, write advice for future players, and evaluate 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 the mentored or unadvised condition. After playing one round of word scramble, participants in the mentoring condition received direction from a random mentor, then played five more rounds.
No-advice participants played six rounds without feedback. Mentors performed better after receiving advice, and they tended to outperform with each subsequent round. But advice from the best performers was, on average, no more helpful than advice from other performers.
Researchers conducted a similar study with darts, which showed a similar pattern of results. “In our experiments, people mentored by top performers thought it helped them more, although it usually didn’t.
Surprisingly, they thought so, even though they knew nothing about the people who wrote their advice,” Levery said. The researchers conducted two more studies to understand whether the advice from better performers was better. Why does it seem
Two graduate research assistants who were blind to the objectives and hypotheses of the study coded the advice for seven qualities: authoritarianism, verbosity, artistry, clarity, number of suggestions, “suggestions” and “should not” suggestions.
Each asset was analyzed for its perceived usefulness and perceived improvement. Only one property – the number of suggestions – consistently predicted both perceived helpfulness and perceived improvement of advice. However, there was no correlation between the number of suggestions and the effectiveness of the advice.
“Top artists didn’t write much useful advice, but they wrote more about it, and in our experiments people mistook quantity for quality,” Levery told APS. So, why wasn’t the advice more helpful? Levery and his colleagues have some ideas.
At first, skilled performers may ignore fundamental advice because “natural talent and extensive practice make conscious thought unnecessary. … A naturally born slugger, who has played baseball every day since childhood, might have Don’t even think of telling a cheater about something she seems completely comfortable with, like balance and grip,” he wrote.
Second, top performers may not be efficient communicators. “Even when an outstanding artist has clear information to share, they may not be particularly adept at sharing it,” the researchers wrote.
In the end, a great deal of advice may exceed advice that can actually be applied. “We spend a lot of time and money looking for good advice from coworkers and coaches, teachers and tutors, or friends and family,” Levary said. “The next time you take advice, you’ll want to think less about how much of it was there, and more about how much of it you can actually use.”
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