Research, by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows that we prefer advice from a confident source, even to the point that we are willing to forgive a poor track record. Moore argues that in competitive situations, this can drive those offering advice to increasingly exaggerate how sure they are. And it spells bad news for scientists who try to be honest about gaps in their knowledge.
In Moore’s experiment, volunteers were given cash for correctly guessing the weight of people from their photographs. In each of the eight rounds of the study, the guessers bought advice from one of four other volunteers. The guessers could see in advance how confident each of these advisers was (see table), but not which weights they had opted for.
From the start, the more confident advisers found more buyers for their advice, and this caused the advisers to give answers that were more and more precise as the game progressed. This escalation in precision disappeared when guessers simply had to choose whether or not to buy the advice of a single adviser. In the later rounds, guessers tended to avoid advisers who had been wrong previously, but this effect was more than outweighed by the bias towards confidence.