In a paper soon to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio tried to examine what decision makers want from people who give them advice.
See this post on the BPS Research Digest for a quick summary of the article.
The conclusion they came to was that people making decisions often prefer ‘the provision of information about alternatives’ to other types of advice or assistance.
How did they test this?
Apparently, many researchers just interpret advice to mean offering an opinion or recommendation. Dalal and Bonaccio expand this to include:
- Recommending for (or against) an option
- Providing information about options
- Advising on the decision making process
- Empathising with the decision maker
(I wonder why they missed out ‘Advising how to obtain better information’, but we’ll let that pass.)
They tested preferences by presenting a scenario, such as choosing between rival job offers. (They acknowledge that this scenario method has limitations because the participants weren’t making real decisions.) After this they gave alternative adviser responses such as:
- I think you should pick C
- Company B has flexible working hours; I know because I have worked there
- There’s a bunch of different ways you could go about making this decision; for example, doing a list of pros and cons could be helpful
- I understand that this is a really tough decision for you; choosing a job is a very stressful decision
How they might have confused things
I don’t think response 2 is simple information provision; it’s an implied recommendation with a justification and a personal testimony. There’s a lot more in it than any of the other options. No wonder people prefered it. Also, because the particpants weren’t really making the decision, they didn’t have to evaluate the personal relevance of the information provided. They might not care about flexible working in a real situation, it may have nothing to do with the criteria they considered important.
The authors tried to get round this by mixing in more general descriptions of advice given, such as:
- Your friend specifically recommends (recommends against) a particular job offer.
- Your friend specifically provides new information or facts about one or more of the job offers.
- Your friend specifically suggests ways to go about making the decision.
- Your friend specifically empathises with you.
Again, option 2 is given a bit of a boost. Notice the inclusion of the word ‘new’. Why didn’t option 3 say ‘Your friend suggests a method for making your decision that you hadn’t thought of’?
Advice which adds to the client’s existing knowledge or know-how is likely to be more valuable. That’s why giving good advice involves exploring the information a client already has and what they have already tried to do before adding your contribution.
Does it matter?
OK, so the methodology may have been a bit dodgy, but I suspect that, even with better methods, the results would have been similar. Information feels like it ought to be useful. Facts are concrete. They are easy to understand. Getting to grips with new decision making methods takes more effort. The adviser needs to do more work to make the usefulness obvious.
A while ago I had a client who was on a teacher training course and not enjoying it. She asked me for information about alternative careers with a teaching qualification. All my efforts to encourage her to think about how she was making her decisions were met with resistance — she wanted the information. So I gave her a list. Then I asked her to talk about how she was going to use the information in the list. In the resulting discussion we were able to explore her pattern of impulsive decision making in the past and develop a more systematic way of researching and evaluating her options. In the end, she could see the point of my initial enquiries and appreciated the decision making advice, but she obviously wanted the security blanket of the information first before she could engage with the advice.
- Have you had clients who needed to have information before they were receptive to more complex advice?
- What other methods have you used to give clients what they actually need rather than what they think they want?
Related post: In the right zone