Ignoring Advice

When do people listen to advice?  I teach my health econ students about studies showing no effect from randomized trials giving (or not giving) advice to teens about smoking, to heart attack victims about healthy living, and to new mothers about caring for their low birth weight babies.   Here is a new related result:

Affari Tuoi is the Italian prototype of the television show Deal or No Deal …114 television episodes … with large monetary stakes. When faced with a decision problem in Affari Tuoi, a contestant may seek advice from the audience, which comes in a form of the vote results. While there is a positive trend between contestants’ decisions and advice, this relation is not statistically significant. … When contestants do not have an opportunity to use advice or when the option of advice is available but not used, they make ex post "wrong" decisions in 52.9% and 54.6% of cases respectively. However, when they choose to consult the audience, the fraction of ex post "wrong" decisions decreases to 36.1%. Moreover, … by following advice contestants increase their earnings (Table 1). Subjects make ex post "wrong" decisions in 46.2% of cases when they neglect the advice and only in 30.4% of cases when they follow the advice.

However, the literature does show that in some situations people seem to listen too much to advice: 

Schotter (2003) surveys several laboratory studies on advice when nonoverlapping “generations” of subjects play ultimatum and coordination games. In these studies (e.g. Schotter and Sopher, 2004, 2007) subjects often rely on the advice of naïve advice. … who hardly possess more expertise or knowledge than we do.

So why do we not listen sometimes and listen other times?

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  • Sam B

    If we’re applying it to Deal or No Deal then the obvious answer is that personal financial circumstances and goals, of which the audience will be largely unaware, have a significant effect on the contestant’s decision. The banker’s offer for the unknown contents of the contestant’s box is always lower than the box’s expected value, so ‘dealing’ only makes sense from a risk-averse utility perspective. As the exact bend of the utility curve is defined by the contestant’s personal circumstances and from a purely (very limited) monetary perspective the decision to deal is always ‘wrong’, the audience’s advice is pretty irrelevant.

    In the UK version the boxes are opened by future contestants, who get to know each other personally over the course of filming and while sharing a hotel. UK contestants occasionally canvas the entire audience, but far more frequently ask their fellow players or friends and family for advice, and answers along the lines of “I’d go on, but given your young children/dying mother/student loan/all of the above I think you should deal” are common. I’d suggest that a study of the effects of their advice would be more revealing.

    So the obvious difference between audience advice on Deal or No Deal and medical advice is that people believe medical advice is dispensed from a position of expertise, while audience advice is dispensed from a position of ignorance of which the contestants are aware.

    Caveat: I obviously haven’t seen the Italian version, but I assume the crucial element – the choice between taking an amount with certainty or taking a gamble with a higher expected value – is the same.

  • Ian C.

    In general I think giving advice is extremely arrogant — a person will know their own life and desires in far greater detail than anyone else, and the advice giver is in effect saying “in spite of that, I still know better.”

  • mobile

    One dynamic could be how to assign credit and blame for the outcome. When the decision maker is not confident in his decision or otherwise expects a bad outcome, he may take advice — even advice he knows is bad — as a way to shift blame from the decision maker to the advisor.

    I’m sure there is also a social dynamic where willingness to get advice or inability to make a decision by one’s self is a signal of weakness. See directions, men asking for.

  • Mason

    “It is not advisable, James, to venture unsolicited opinions. You should spare yourself the embarrassing discovery of their exact value to your listener.”

    ~Ann Rand

    While I agree with Rand and Ian, generally advice should and does go unheeded, sometimes it is valuable to your listener, and the cost is always low, so why not offer away. Just expect it to be ignored.

    As for why people listen sometimes but not others, probably has to do with the listeners awareness of their own level of knowledge, and there perception of the adviser’s level of knowledge. I suppose the above shows that people are not good at judging these.

  • George Weinberg

    Maybe sometimes when people follow advice it’s primarily about evading responsibility for the decision rather than improving the decision. Conversely, sometimes when people solicit advice what they’re really after is approval for the decision they’ve already made. If they don’t get it, they’ll stick with their decision anyway.

  • Michael

    “Conversely, sometimes when people solicit advice what they’re really after is approval for the decision they’ve already made. If they don’t get it, they’ll stick with their decision anyway.”

    George, you beat me to the punch–this is exactly why they ask for the audience’s opinion. Note that this scenario is much different than the other two, as it entails an immediate and tangible gain or loss.

    As for smoking advice for teens, this will clearly have no effect. Most teens neither have a good understanding of probability nor have any grasp of a 30-year time frame. Telling them that their risks of lung cancer and heart disease will triple (or whatever) in the distant future is not useful.

    My guess is that in general, solicited advice has a greater effect than unsolicited advice, and advice from someone you know has a greater effect than that of a stranger.

  • I was able to download the Deal or No Deal paper and noticed a few additional interesting facts. First, advice was available in 230 cases but was only consulted in 38. It may be that the rules limit how often advice can be used so it might be strategically unwise to ask for advice too often or too early in the game. Second, when consulted, advice was followed 63.9% of the time (23 times followed vs 13 times ignored). So that is not too strong an example of ignoring advice, although arguably contestants should have followed it more often.

    However the case for following advice may not be quite as strong as the authors suggest. The basis of the statistics Robin quotes are that when players followed the audience advice, they were right 16 times out of 23; when players did the opposite of what was advised, they were right 7 times out of 13, a lower percentage. But if players had slavishly followed the audience advice, instead of being right 23 times out of 36, they would actually have done worse. The audience was right only 22 times out of 36. Players, weighing the advice, did slightly better than the audience. It’s not clear then that they should have followed the advice more closely.

    The American version of DOND does not use audience advice. Another show that does is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which lets players poll the audience one time during a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions. In my informal observations, players almost always do follow the audience advice, and the audience is almost always right.

  • Pseudonymous

    As for smoking advice for teens, this will clearly have no effect.

    What advice are the teens given? Don’t start smoking?

    They knew that would be the advice before they were given it, so why should it have an effect?

  • Joseph Buck

    Pseudonymous wrote: “They knew that would be the advice before they were given it, so why should it have an effect?”

    This is a good point. Most teens have probably already heard about the health risks of smoking and been warned against it, and most of them have probably already made up their mind based on this previous advice. A better study would give students helpful advice about a subject on which they probably have not been advised before.

  • Constant

    studies showing no effect from randomized trials giving (or not giving) advice to teens about smoking

    How does this sort of study take into account the possibility that the reason the teen (say) does not seem to react to the advice given in the study, is that the teen is already receiving plenty of advice outside of the study?

    If the “control group” receiving no advice within the study in fact has received average 50 hours of advice over the years, and if the “advised group” receives 1 hour of advice within the study, then the difference between the “control group” and “advised group” is minuscule.

  • Roland

    There is a big difference between two kind of advices:

    a) advice that will cost you something to implement, like ‘stop smoking!’ or ‘eat healthy!’.
    b) advice without such cost like ‘the correct answer to the question is nr. 3’

    If you ever tried to break an ingrained habit you know what I’m refering to at a). The big question here becomes what has more power in you: the emotional or rational brain.

  • Every once in a long while, in a situation where I’m being particularly indecisive and I can’t make up my mind about some low-stakes decision, I’ve been known to flip a coin to help me decide. As far as I can tell, I follow the results of the coin toss roughly half the time, and the other times I go against the flip. From introspection, I’ve come to believe that the reason I value that coin toss is because it gets me to model the consequences of the decision with more immediacy.

    Suddenly it’s a matter of: “now this coin toss is going to make me walk out of this store with these boring oatmeal cookies, and I can almost feel them in my mouth right now, and they are going to be bland and dry”

    …instead of: “Hmm…oatmeal or fudge-pistachio? How ever will I pick?”

  • chuckles

    A very basic lesson in persuasion is you should try to make your interlocutor believe that he has come to the conclusion you were trying to impose on him by himself.

    (Telling this to a would-be salesman is like telling a sprinter to “run fast.”)

    If you can “coat” your advice in the guise of the other person’s discovery, they’ll take it for sure.

    Another instance in which people take advice is when it comes from a close, trusted, and respected friend or mentor.

    The contrapositive is also true. This is why teens do not take advice from the high school health teacher.