The foolishness of trusting experts

I am not infrequently criticized for being intrinsically skeptical of anything an expert says, despite the fact that I am, literally, a professional card-carrying “expert” myself. But such skepticism is absolutely justified:

As an economist specializing in the global economy, international trade and debt, I have spent most of my career helping others make big decisions — prime ministers, presidents and chief executives — and so I’m all too aware of the risks and dangers of poor choices in the public as well as the private sphere. But up until then I hadn’t thought much about the process of decision making. So in between M.R.I.’s, CT scans and spinal taps, I dove into the academic literature on decision making. Not just in my field but also in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, information science, political science and history.

What did I learn?

Physicians do get things wrong, remarkably often. Studies have shown that up to one in five patients are misdiagnosed. In the United States and Canada it is estimated that 50,000 hospital deaths each year could have been prevented if the real cause of illness had been correctly identified.

Yet people are loath to challenge experts. In a 2009 experiment carried out at Emory University, a group of adults was asked to make a decision while contemplating an expert’s claims, in this case, a financial expert. A functional M.R.I. scanner gauged their brain activity as they did so. The results were extraordinary: when confronted with the expert, it was as if the independent decision-making parts of many subjects’ brains pretty much switched off. They simply ceded their power to decide to the expert.

And there is the problem. Experts are simply people with more information and experience. But they are not necessarily as intelligent as you are, they often lack some of the most relevant information, and they usually have no skin in the game so they often don’t even bother paying serious attention to the matter at hand.

Some of my biggest mistakes have been because, against my better judgment, I trusted the expert to know what he was doing. The main problem, I think, is that the expert is usually making a probabilistic decision based on the averages without bothering to apply the specific details that happen to alter the odds. And this doesn’t even include the more serious, but less common problem of when the expert has a financial incentive to make a particular determination.

As we know, someone with a financial incentive to see things a certain way tends to have a very difficult time seeing it any other way, regardless of their level of expertise. The expert investment adviser wants you to invest in something, anything, and the more churn the better. The expert real estate salesman wants to sell your house quickly, with as little marketing expense as possible, and he doesn’t care if you get the best price or not. The expert banker wants you to take out the largest loan he can get you to sign for, even if you can’t really afford it. The expert IT guy just wants you to shut up, stop asking questions, and do what he tells you.

None of this means that expert advice is useless. Often they have a considerable amount of useful information. But that doesn’t mean you should ever let them make your decisions for you. Listen and learn, but do not trust.