Leaders prefer uncertain advice more than overconfidence

One might assume leaders are more likely to heed advice from confident advisers. A study from researchers at University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania challenges that conventional wisdom.

Chicago Booth's Celia Gaertig, PhD, and University of Pennsylvania's Joseph Simmons conducted a series of studies to find that although people evaluate confident advisers favorably, they don't mind when advice itself is uncertain.

This is an especially relevant finding given the amount of uncertainty clouding important decisions, including business reopenings, returns to schools and offices, and more. 

In some of the studies, two advisers — one confident and one uncertain — shared advice to participants on how to make good bets on baseball games. The guidance from both advisers was sound, but the uncertain advisers delivered their insights with some prefaces, such as, "I am not sure." For example, "I am not sure, but I think that the Chicago Cubs will win this game," whereas the confident adviser simply said, "The Chicago Cubs will win this game."

Participants evaluated confident advisers more positively than advisers who lacked confidence. Importantly, however, they did not find that participants evaluated uncertain advice more negatively than certain advice. In fact, participants either rated uncertain and certain advice the same, or they rated uncertain advice more positively than certain advice.

When participants were asked to directly choose between advisers, most were inclined to choose the advisers who included uncertainty in their advice.

"Advisors benefit from expressing themselves with confidence, but not from communicating false certainty," the researchers conclude.

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