Successful People Don't Give the Best Advice, Study Suggests

Successful people don't necessarily give the best advice—they just tend to give more of it, a study has suggested.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science in April, involved thousands of people and tasked them with playing games of Word Scramble, a word-finding game in which players are shown a grid of letters and must identify words inside the grid within a time limit.

The study was split into four parts. In the first, 1,000 participants were asked simply to play Word Scramble and were asked whether they thought there might be any link between how good someone was at the game and how good they'd be at helping others play it. Most people said that someone's ability to play the game would be an indicator of how good their advice was.

Checkmate
A stock photo shows a person beating another person at chess via checkmate. A study involving people playing a word game based on advice of previous players has shown that the most successful people don't always give the best tips. marchmeena29/Getty

In the second part, 78 people were chosen to be advisers to 2,000 more people who were tasked with playing the game. This guidance varied, with some advisers saying people should look for short words, for example, or look for certain parts of words.

At the end of this part of the study, the researchers—from Harvard University and the University of Virginia—found that guidance did tend to improve people's performance.

However, they also found that the guidance that came from the best players was not actually any more beneficial to the new players compared to the guidance given from other advisers.

The third part of the study switched things up again. This time, 300 people were given the guidance written by advisers in the previous part but were told not to implement them into the gameplay. Rather, they were asked to simply guess how effective the guidance would be.

It's crucial to note that the players who were given the advice were told nothing about the performance of the people who gave it.

The results showed that the guidance provided by the most successful players was regarded as sounding better than the guidance provided by the rest—even though the previous part of the study showed that this advice was not actually any more effective in practice.

The fourth and final part of the study did not involve any gameplay. In this section, researchers analyzed the advice given by the more successful players to see why people rated it more highly. They found that the more successful performers made a higher number of suggestions than others.

"The best performers did not give better advice, but they did give more of it, and participants apparently mistook quantity for quality," the study reads. "These studies suggest that performing and advising may often be unrelated skills and that in at least some domains, people may overvalue advice from top performers."

David Levari, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Business School who co-authored the study, told Newsweek why it might be that the most successful performers were not necessarily the best at giving advice.

"Just because someone is a great performer, that doesn't necessarily mean that they will also be a great communicator," he said. "If you're looking for advice to help you get better at something, our research suggests that you don't want to just ask gifted performers, you want gifted teachers.

"Some top performers may just not have a lot of insight into how they do what they do, either because of natural ability or because they have practiced so much that they don't need to think about it anymore," he explained.

Levari also suggested that there was nothing actually wrong with the top performers' advice, but that the amount of advice they gave to people was overwhelming and not put to good use. He added that the research investigated 'how to do' advice and not 'what to do' advice.

"The best-performing advisors who do not provide superior performance advice may still provide superior decision advice," the paper reads. "Even if Warren Buffett cannot effectively teach people how to invest, his stock tips may be worth heeding."

Update 06/01/22, 12:07 p.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from David Levari.