The Expert Myth – Why smart people relinquish their power to strangers

hiring expets

Our entire lives we’re taught to trust experts; first our parents, then our teachers, and so on. Now throw in the trend towards overspecialization over the past several decades. Starting in high school, in some cases, people begin charting a course towards a specific major; this is refined in college, further whittled down in post graduate studies, and then employment. These days, colleges offer majors in anything from poultry science to comic book art. This has led to highly specialized ‘experts’ in every field imaginable.

Our media rolls out a constant stream of these experts to offer advice on everything from what to eat, to where to live, to how to raise our kids. In David Freedman’s book, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, he cites a study in which brain scans indicate that when faced with expert advice, our brain activity actually decreases. In effect, we let them take over some of our thinking for us (this is a little unsettling).

To make matters worse, studies have also shown that most of the time, experts are wrong (for more on that check out the book).

In the corporate world, we face this issue routinely; hiring outside experts for marketing, product development, brand strategy, project management, and everything in between. So how do we know whether or not we can actually trust what they say?

Well… it’s tricky, but here are a few suggestions for evaluating expert advice:

  • Are they giving you very simplistic answers? Studies show that we are more likely to follow advice that is presented as simple, universal, and certain (another point made by Mr. Freedman). After all, we want an easy, tidy solution to our problems, it’s only natural. But in actuality, few things are that cut and dry. No one person can know everything there is to know and be able to flawlessly and unbiasedly synthesize information on any one subject. The best experts acknowledge that they are presenting their best advice based on their knowledge and skill set, not the ultimate, hard and fast rule of the universe.
  • Do they seem over-confident? Many experts develop a tendency to make confident proclamations because they know that more people are likely to agree with and follow them. Certainly, one should be confident in their abilities, however, they should also be able to recognize the fallibility in their personal knowledge. In the words of psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, “organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences.”
  • Are they selling you their experience?  While experience can be an indicator to someone’s knowledge in a given field, I’d be careful of relying on it as a sole indicator of an expert’s qualifications. They may have 20 years of experience, but are they learning, reevaluating, and changing with the times or are they still operating as if it were 20 years ago? A glaring example of this was when, in 2008, revered economic expert and former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan admitted before congress that he was wrong about deregulation, a belief previously core to his long-standing economic philosophy. Look for someone who can demonstrate a history of being flexible and willing to challenge their own beliefs in search of a better solution.
  • Are they telling you or showing you? An example: Say, you’re shopping around for a marketing firm. You find one and check out their website. Maybe they were recommended to you by a friend or business connection. On their website and in a subsequent phone call they tell you all about how great they are, list off their big name clients, and regale you with their success stories. But their website looks like it was built in the 1990s and never updated, they have no social media presence, their blog hasn’t been updated in three years, and no one working there is under 50 (this is not a slight on age, just commentary on a lack of diversity).  Do you really want to hire a marketing firm who does such a poor job of their own marketing? I don’t.
  • Are they just telling you what you want to hear? According to Scientific American, a 2010 study indicates that we are much more likely to regard someone as an expert if they reinforce our current views. While, to some extent, this is unavoidable (it’s human nature), it’s something that is important to keep in mind. If you find yourself automatically rejecting something an expert says, ask yourself if it’s because she is challenging your currently held beliefs. The same holds true for the opposite. Some companies have a tendency to hire experts seemingly for the sole purpose of providing validation for what they already want to do, while blatantly ignoring recommendations that challenge the status quo.
  • Do your own research. While it isn’t practical to try to become an expert in a field for which you are hiring an expert, try to spend some time brushing up on the subject. Check out some well-respected blogs or a book or two, talk to friends, hop on an internet forum and ask professionals in the field for advice on questions you should be asking. Be as well prepared as you can to be able to really understand what your expert is saying, know what questions to ask, and request further explanation when needed.

In the end, you don’t need to find the greatest expert of all time.  He doesn’t need to provide a universal solution that would solve the problems of every company ever created. You need an expert who will present you with a solution that will work for your company. Will it be the only solution? Not likely. Will it be the best solution? Maybe, maybe not. But the question is: Will it help you to achieve your goals in a practical and effective way?

We can’t change human nature. We will always be influenced by bias and misjudgments, but being aware of how we respond to expert advice can help us to distinguish between what to keep and what to throw out.


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