You Follow Advice Despite Conflicts of Interest

An adviser's job is to help you get what you want. Yet, when your advisers have a reason to recommend something that is better for them than it is for you, there is still a desire to help them out at your own expense.
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There are many situations in life in which you have to follow other people's advice. Doctors recommend medications to treat problems. Mechanics suggest ways to maintain your car more effectively. Financial advisers indicate the investments they think you should consider.

Because companies know that advisers play a big role in the choices people make, those companies will often create incentives for advisers to make specific recommendations. Drug companies wine-and-dine doctors in the hope that the doctors will recommend their medications to patients. Mechanics often have higher profit margins on some kinds of maintenance, which gives them a reason to suggest those procedures.

These incentives create a conflict of interest. When you get advice from someone, you hope that you are getting the advice that is best for you. When advisers have an incentive to recommend a particular option, then they may suggest that option to you even when it is not ideal.

To help protect you, there are often regulations that require disclosures of conflicts of interest. In those cases, an adviser has to tell you in advance that they have reasons to recommend particular options. The idea is that if you know that an adviser may be biased, you can use that information to help you make a choice.

Do these disclosures work?

This question was addressed in a paper in the February 2013 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Sunita Sah, George Loewenstein, and Daylian Cain. Their studies suggest that these disclosures may actually increase the likelihood that people make choices that are in the advisers best interest rather than their own.

In their studies, participants were people who had never met. These participants were recruited in public places, so they were not generally college students. One participant played the role of the adviser, while the other played the role of the chooser.

The options in these studies were opportunities to win a prize. In a given opportunity, there were six possible prizes. The prize a participant would actually get depended on the role of a die. Choosers were faced with two sets of prizes, and they had to select which one they wanted. Then, the experimenter would roll a die, and they would get the prize that matched the number for that set. The two sets were designed so that one was better than the other. For example, the better set might have the chance for prizes like a $50 gift card to Amazon, a candy bar, or a can of Coke. The worse set might have the chance for prizes like a $20 gift card, a can of generic soda, or a candy bar. When people were given a free choice between the two sets, they almost always chose the better one.

The second participant played the role of an adviser. The adviser always saw the options first and made a recommendation for what the chooser should pick. In some cases, there was no conflict of interest. Both the chooser and the adviser would get prizes after the study regardless of what the adviser recommended and what the chooser selected. In those cases, the adviser generally recommended the better option, and the chooser generally picked it.

In some cases, though, the experimenters created a conflict. In these cases, the adviser would get a chance to win a prize only if the chooser picked the worse set of prizes. So, there was incentive for the adviser to recommend the worse option.

If the chooser was not told about the conflict, then they took the advisers recommendation only about 30 percent of the time. Ratings they gave after the study suggested that they felt the adviser gave a bad recommendation.

In the disclosure condition, though, the advisers had to write down that they made this recommendation because they would only receive a prize if the chooser selected the worse option. In the conditions in which the conflict was disclosed, choosers felt that the adviser was not trustworthy, but they took the adviser's recommendation about 75 percent of the time.

What is going on here?

Choosers in these studies seem to have been motivated to make a selection that helped both themselves and the adviser. That is, choosers picked something that was worse for them overall just to help the adviser to get something as well.

Other studies in this series found that choosers would pick the worse option about half the time even when the disclosure was made by the experimenter rather than by the adviser. That is, having an independent person disclose the conflict did not stop people from picking the option that was worse for them just to help the adviser.

These studies demonstrate that your willingness to be cooperative with others can work against us. After all, an adviser's job is to help you get what you want. Yet, when your advisers have a reason to recommend something that is better for them than it is for you, there is still a desire to help them out at your own expense.

In the real world (as opposed to these experimental situations), the problem is probably even worse. In these studies, participants could generally evaluate the options perfectly well for themselves. In the world, you go to advisers (doctors, mechanics, financial planners), because they have expertise that you don't have. So, even if you do not completely trust the advice we are given, that advice is still better than what you might be able to come up with on your own.

Ultimately, your best defense against biased recommendations is to get several independent opinions. Hopefully, the various advisers you consult will have different conflicts. If you can find some consensus among several advisers, that agreement may reflect what is best for you.

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