Trust Me, I’m an Expert

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Trust, the glue that holds society together, is in short supply right now, just as people all over the world are being asked to trust official policies about the pandemic. The policies themselves are highly controversial, seen by some as an intrusion on personal liberty and by others as selling public health for profit. Can we hear even the most expert advice objectively in this climate?

Two studies shed light on the way personal views affect our trust in expert advice. Mercifully, for those of us combatting pandemic-fatigue, these studies are not about viruses or pandemics. The first one is about spanking and car seats. 180 parents in 41 U.S. states read news articles either about the controversial topic of spanking, or a topic parents tend to agree onusing car seats. The articles contained expert and lay comments which were either pro or anti-spanking. Parents with pro-spanking views trusted the lay commentators with pro-spanking views more than the experts with anti-spanking views. But all parents trusted the experts when talking about car seats.

And herein lies the problem with expert opinions on controversial topics. Once strong personal opinions come into the mix it is hard to take experts that disagree with those views seriously. Around half of parents in the U.S. and U.K. spank their young children. Rather than expert opinion, parents often turn to lay comments on twitter, using terms such as smack, slap, whoop, beat, hit, punch, swat, pop, and tap.

A Brazilian study looked deeper into the problem. They gave people expert opinions ranging from the highly controversial (on presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s policies) to the more mundane (major brands of laptops). They also gave clear clues that the experts had vested interests in persuading people to their point of view, such as getting a position in Bolsanaro’s government if elected or having major shares in a brand. But even when people could clearly see these ulterior motives people tended to trust the expert opinion that reflected their own opinion. SOURCE

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On November 17, 2020

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