Perceptions of Honesty

honestyPeople place greater trust in advisors who admit to some kind of bias in their recommendations, or that there are things they don’t know.  Apparently, the admission of imperfection makes an advisor seem more honest and reliable.  Conversely, the person who claims to know everything is less credible.

The latest evidence of this comes from a report from a medical research team at Cornell University (1).  Doctors who preface a recommendation to a patient with an admission of bias toward procedures in their own specialty are perceived to be more believable, and their recommendations are more likely to be followed, than are doctors who don’t admit to any bias.  The study director thought the admission of bias would make recommendations about surgery less effective, but the result was the opposite.

That makes sense.  The world has become too complex for any one person to know everything, and consumers are smart enough to know that.

People don’t know whom to trust and a job title or degree doesn’t automatically denote expertise.  So people look for personal cues that reinforce of betray knowledge and honesty.  What else do they have?  In medicine, neither the AMA or police unions have ever been willing to admit that members make mistakes, much less outing the worst of the miscreants.

Happily, an advisor who “blows smoke” on subjects he doesn’t know can’t fool people for very long and looks like a complete idiot for trying.

I learned that early on in my career in doing customer surveys.  Companies that have problems and handle them quickly always get higher marks from customers than those that pretend that problems don’t exist.  That was true in 1980 when I analyzed my first survey for Indianapolis Power and Light, and it remans true today.

I adopted the position that I don’t know everything, but I know where to find the answers I don’t have.  That’s actually worked pretty well over the years.

It’s too bad our political and business leaders don’t get it.  Most US Congressmen don’t read the bills on which they vote.  They have staff who work on the bills, or they follow the lead of other members of Congress whose judgment they trust.  However, they never admit to that in any speech, interview or debate.  The same could be said about CEOs, who have an even greater reliance on staff.  What makes someone like Warren Buffett exceptional is the amount of work he does and his personal knowledgebase.

And the US presidential candidates this year . . . ?



(1) “In doctors we trust, especially when they admit to bias,”  Science Daily, 21 June 2016.

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