"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
Such an impulse was not found in non-experts and, interestingly,
in experts when the researchers told them not to be worried about consequences
as they answered a study's questionnaire. "When we told them they were off the
hook, they made better decisions. Their false recall call rate went down!" said
They tested their basic hypotheses in four experiments. For example, one examined if reducing
an expert's sense of accountability for his judgments could "debias" them and
improve their memories. Another inspected whether experts have a greater
frequency of false recalls than novices when involved in memory-driven product
"One reason for this tendency to provide more thorough and
detailed information is that experts naturally feel a heightened sense of
accountability for their judgments," the authors write. "It is this greater
effort to compare individual features across options that, we believe, leads
experts to commit more recall errors than novices."