Why Experts Get It Wrong

New research explains why those we rely upon for advice so frequently lead us astray

Ravi Mehta is not vaguely surprised that most high-profile basketball "experts" screwed up their Final Four predictions. Overall, of 5.9 million brackets submitted to ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge by those following the games, only 192 had Butler meeting Virginia Commonwealth in Saturday's semi-finals.

"Yes, I think it's an example of the fallibilities of expertise people can bring to their work," says Mehta, a business administration professor at the University of Illinois. With most basketball experts congregating in Houston, the matter is especially relevant to him because he's just dissected why those we often rely upon for advice can be so wrong.

"Knowing Too Much: Expertise Induced False Recall Effects in Product Comparison," to be published shortly in the Journal of Consumer Research, is specifically about consumer products and why we err in buying into expert opinion. But when I tracked down Mehta, he suggested that the Final Four blunders are of a piece with research co-authored with Joandrea Hoegg and Amitav Chakravarti, associate professors of marketing in the graduate business schools at the University of British Columbia and New York University, respectively.

"There is a blanket assumption that knowledge and expertise are always good," Mehta says. "What we show is that it's not always true. Expertise is a double-edge sword."

There is no shortage of popular literature from various fields, including foreign affairs and business, about smart people making dumb mistakes. David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" remains a primer on botched government decision-making by experts; namely, how key aides to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, most of them products of an American academic and social elite, got us into the mess of the Vietnam War.

And, for sure, there is previous academic literature suggesting that experts can fall prey to false memories, and thus make false comparisons and inferences, precisely because of their greater-than-average memories of specific subjects.

Mehta and his business school colleagues expand on that literature via four related studies, each concluding that consumer products experts mistakenly, if inadvertently, tend to suggest apples-to-apples comparisons when such may simply not exist.

They open with a far less weighty matter than whether we should have escalated our involvement in Vietnam, namely what experts might erroneously tell you if you were wondering whether to get an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3. For sure, there are attributes of each product which are directly comparable, such as a 60 GB hard drive for the Xbox versus a 120 GB hard drive for the PlayStation. But there are many elements which describe just one of the products, such as the BluRay video playback of the PlayStation.

The core problem with an expert dissecting the differences, the researcher found, involves an impulse to "maximize comparability," or stretching to make comparisons and falsely recalling features that simply aren't there for one product. This consistent "false recall" was, they concluded, partly fueled by an expert's sense of accountability and resulting pressure to be, well, an expert.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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