Professionals often give advice to many anonymous people.
For example, financial analysts give public recommendations to buy, hold or sell stock, and medical experts formulate clinical guidelines that affect many patients.
New research from Carnegie Mellon University's George Loewenstein and Duke University's Sunita Sah may offer insight into who to go to for advice.
It turns out that advisers with a possible conflict of interest give more biased advice when there are multiple advice recipients as opposed to just one.
And in the case of just one recipient, the advice is more biased when the adviser does not know the name of the recipient.
The findings, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, also show that an increased intensity of feelings toward single, identified recipients appears to drive the bias.
Advisers experience more empathy, and appear to have greater awareness and motivation to reduce bias in their advice, when the recipient is single and identified.
"Logically, professionals should be more concerned about the advice they give to multiple recipients than to single recipients since it will affect the welfare of more people," noted Sah, a post-doctoral associate at Duke's Fuqua School of Business who worked on this research while completing her Ph.D. at CMU's Tepper School of Business.
"But, people feel more empathetic toward a single, identified, advice recipient, so they tend to put more care into the advice and behave less selfishly than they do if there are many recipients."
In other words, the next time you seek the advice of a professional, consider a face-to-face meeting.
Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology within CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, added, "It is a perfect example of how emotional reactions to situations can often drive us to do exactly the opposite of what logic would prescribe."
This study is one of many collaborations between Loewenstein and Sah, including a 2010 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that helps to explain how physicians rationalize accepting industry gifts.