Carnegie Mellon University

Catherine Shea

April 03, 2020

When Choosing an Adviser, People Value Positivity Over Expertise

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In many professions, selecting a good adviser is important: Advisers who provide support and advice can help employees achieve long-term goals. A new study examined the discrepancy between predicted and actual decisions in choosing advisers. The study found that people are more likely to choose an adviser who expresses positivity toward them than to select someone who has expertise in the advisees' field. This tendency, the study found, can inhibit advisees' professional advances.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, New York University, and the University of Toronto, appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

"Our study conceptualized advisers as providing not only one-time advice related to a particular task, but also psychological support and feedback on performance to achieve long-term goals, and that, in turn, helped us understand more about the effect of social cues on decisions involving selecting an adviser," says Catherine Shea, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, who co-authored the study. "Our findings highlight the disconnect between predictions about what makes someone a good adviser and actual decisions about whom to select."

Researchers conducted six experiments with a total of 1,253 participants to examine the differences between how people predict how they will choose advisers and how they actually do so. Participants included individuals recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing marketplace that helps people and businesses outsource their work; people who had applied to be contestants on the reality singing TV show "The Voice"; contestants who had actually appeared on the show; and singers attending a university who wanted to improve their performance.

"We studied 'The Voice' because on that show, artists can select their advisers from a set of coaches," explains Julia Hur, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University's Stern School of Business, who led the study. "In doing so, our model more closely resembles actual work situations in which advisers can shape the careers of their advisees."

The study found that when thinking about selecting an adviser, people tended to predict that they would rely primarily on characteristics related to competency (e.g., expertise, experience). But when they actually chose someone to advise them, their decisions were more heavily influenced by their emotional response to advisers' expressed positivity — that is, they were more likely to choose advisers who gave them verbal and behavioral feedback that communicated strong positive feelings.

The study also found that most people failed to anticipate how positivity would influence their choices, and that people who relied only on positivity expressed by potential advisers and not on advisers' expertise made fewer improvements in singing. That is, people who received advice from an adviser with more expertise in singing improved their singing performance more than people who received advice from an adviser who gave more positive feedback.

"The predictions people make about how they'll choose an adviser are often not used in practice," according to Rachel Ruttan, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, who co-authored the study. "This reliance on expressed positivity may have negative long-term consequences: Positive advisers may make us feel good about ourselves, but they may not help us get better."

The authors note limitations in the study, including that some participants may realize that positivity would provide a short-term gain, but long-term cost. How much individuals value positivity — compared to industry expertise — may also play a role.


Summarized from an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, "The Unexpected Power of Positivity: Predictions Versus Decisions About Advisor Selection" by Hur, J (New York University), Ruttan, RL (University of Toronto), and Shea, C (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.