My friend has a business that paints house numbers on the sidewalk. When he first started, he tried flyers, cold calling, and selling door to door. Nothing boosted his business.
One day he had an idea: a flyer depicting a fireman talking to a woman with the caption, “In case of fire, a legible house number on the sidewalk helps us find your house faster.”
Within a few weeks, business was booming. My friend’s new flyer tapped into people’s tendency to trust expert opinion. In their minds, firemen are experts, and here a fireman was recommending that they get their sidewalks painted with the house number.
Marketing companies use this type of campaign to influence us to think we are making better decisions, but in fact, they are exploiting our cognitive blind spots: in many cases (including this one), the advice giver wasn’t an expert.
Expert Versus Non-Expert
An expert is someone who becomes knowledgeable in a specific area by studying that area extensively, or by having experience and training in it. An expert opinion gives you some reason to think that a claim is true, but a non-expert opinion doesn’t.
The problem is that people often aren’t very careful about checking whether or not the source they’re trusting is an expert. One of the pitfalls of the information age is that we’re bombarded with advice, and most people aren’t trained to distinguish experts from non-experts. They instead get their ideas from politicians, TV pundits, marketers and social media influencers.
If the sources many people trust aren’t real experts, then many of the things people think they know, they really don’t know but merely believe. Free thinkers, however, aren’t happy with mere belief. They want to know and understand what’s true, not just collect beliefs.
I’ve already discussed how free thinkers use expert opinion for good advice. In this article I want to talk about how people take advice from non-experts.
How do People Fall for Bad Advice From a Non-Expert?
We all have doubts about certain claims, and our doubts are justified if they are coming from non-experts. A non-expert typically distracts a free thinker’s pursuit of knowing and understanding what’s true. A non-expert gives us bad advice in our pursuit of what’s true. (Incidentally, when we rely on non-experts for evidence, it’s an error in reasoning—a logical fallacy—called “appeal to authority.”)
In general, we fall for bad advice when we treat a non-expert as an expert in two ways:
#1 Relying on Claims Outside the Expert’s Circle of Competence
Some people fall for bad advice because they fail to recognize the limitations of expert knowledge. They think an expert in one subject has expertise beyond that subject. When people don’t recognize the limitation of expert knowledge and treat people as experts outside of their area of expertise, it leads to errors in reasoning. In particular, it leads to accepting claims for which there is no evidence.
For example, Einstein’s area of expertise was Physics, but people quote Einstein’s advice all the time about things that have nothing to do with Physics. In doing so, they are treating Einstein as if he were an expert on everything. But he wasn’t. Expertise is limited. Einstein’s opinions outside his area of expertise are not more likely to be true than anyone else’s. Appealing to Einstein’s opinions outside his circle of competence can lead to bad advice.
#2 Regarding a Non-Expert as an Expert
Other people fall for bad advice because they treat non-experts as if they were experts. For example, they regard someone as an expert based on that person’s social status, sex appeal, wealth, or prestige—actors, athletes, activists, politicians, famous and successful people. Accepting claims about COVID-19, for instance, based on the words of actors or politicians without evidence would be treating non-experts as if they were experts.
Most of the time marketing departments work to convince people that someone is an expert even though that person is not. One of the essential reads on psychology, Influence, by Robert Cialdini, talks about authority as one of the six fundamental principles marketers use to influence and persuade people.
Cialdini, gives an excellent example in his book: Physiotherapists are able to persuade more of their patients to comply with recommended exercise programs if they display their medical diplomas on the walls of their consulting rooms. Just like my own experience with my friend using a fireman to sell more of his business, these physiotherapists are using a trigger to get their clients to comply and think they are following better advice than they actually are.
Once you realize that marketers are trying to manipulate you, you will start to notice appeal to authority more often. Let’s look at a billion-dollar industry: Nike has used athletes to sell athletic gear for decades. Its message is essentially, “If you wear Nike, you will be like a professional athlete.” It started with the “I want to be like Mike” campaign, which used Michael Jordan to sell sneakers. They continued this concept with Roger Federer, Sarena Williams and Tiger woods. All these athletes are experts in performing in their chosen sports, but they are not experts in evaluating the best possible gear for your needs. When people buy a product because of athlete’s fame, they are falling for an appeal to authority fallacy.
2 Common Mistakes to Avoid before Rejecting an Expert
We’ve talked about people who accept the advice of non-experts. Now let’s talk about the equal and opposite mistake: rejecting possible good advice from experts.
We can all use experts as a starting point to know and understand what’s true. They know a lot about a subject. Using their opinions as a guide is thus a time saver, and it’s certainly more reliable than the advice of non-experts—including our own.
Here are two common reasons people wrongly reject expert opinion:
#1: They have a bias against all experts. One of the worst things we can do is believe that we can know everything about how the world works on our own. Knowing and understanding everything is not achievable on our own, we need to rely on experts as our starting point. Some people are suspicious of all experts without looking into the evidence. This is why in the case of COVID-19 pandemic, the best source of health information will come from a virologist with evidence as a starting point.
#2: They assume the expert’s claim is biased. Even though someone is biased, it doesn’t mean their claims are false. It is not a bad thing to rely on someone that could appear to be biased, as long as they can provide the evidence. For example, if a scientist in the health care field is getting paid by a pharmaceutical company to do a research on COVID-19, this doesn’t automatically make the expert’s claims false; it just means you need to handle those claims with care. But if you’re a free thinker, you handle all claims with care.
The Free Thinker’s Method for Avoiding Bad Advice
We can all use experts as a starting point to know and understand what’s true. In order to get the best advice, start with finding someone in the field that is an expert, and be sure you’re not choosing someone simply on the basis of their status, sex appeal, or prestige, like Elon Musk or Miley Cyrus.
Next, make sure the advice you are getting from the expert is not outside of their circle of competence. Let’s say in your current situation, someone is giving you career advice about starting in the mental health field. If that someone is a cardiologist, then they’re outside their circle of competence. They can give you good advice about how to keep your heart healthy, but they might not be able to tell you how to start a career in the field of mental health. Instead, you want to get the opinion of an expert in the mental health field. In the end, you have the choice to systematically review the claim and come to your own conclusion.