TDL Brief: Listening to Experts

From the time we are children, we are told to listen to experts. These figures of authority usually begin as our parents, but as we grow up, they become teachers, industry experts, scientists and policy makers. When we are unsure of how to behave, we look to experts to nudge us in the right direction. 

Recently, the push to listen to experts has been stronger than ever. With the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic came a great amount of confusion about how to act. It seemed that recommendations and protocols were changing daily. With all this conflicting advice, and a growing public distrust in science, it is almost of no surprise that we have become reluctant to listen to the experts. Humans’ desire to avoid being told what to do, especially in individualistic countries like the U.S., makes us resistant to following experts’ recommendations about the pandemic. Some cognitive biases that influence whether or not we will listen to experts are further shaped by culture. We might be less likely to listen to female experts due to implicit gender biases.

1. Why Are People Hesitant to Listen to Experts When it Comes to COVID-19 Vaccines?

By Behavioral Scientist, Why Are People Ignoring Expert Warnings? — Psychological Reactance, (March 2020). 

The pandemic has brought many human tendencies to light, one of which is the fact that in recent years, many people have lost their faith in science and no longer trust scientific experts. Although in recent weeks, a number of vaccines have been approved across the globe, not everyone will agree to take the vaccine. Without first addressing people’s reluctance to listen to the experts, we won’t be out of the woods for a while. 

While vaccines in general are a controversial topic. Anti-vaxxer movements continued to persist before COVID-19, despite the vast amount of scientific data that supports the use of vaccines –  we want to more closely examine why there exists an opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is especially interesting that so many people are hesitant to take the FDA-approved vaccines, when both scientists and policymakers continue to stress its importance in our effort  to get back to normal. 

It may come as no surprise that the vaccine is facing hesitation: throughout the entire pandemic, policy makers and scientists have struggled to get people to understand the dire need to follow various safety measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing. People’s reluctance to take the vaccine is but the next step in defying authority. This phenomenon is known as reactance, identified by psychologist Jack Brehm back in 1966. When people feel as though their freedoms are threatened or reduced, they become motivated to try to regain those freedoms. In other words, they don’t listen to the experts who want to ensure we get through this pandemic as unscathed as possible because they feel that the experts are taking away their freedoms. People may not just ignore the advice, but actively lash out because they feel their freedom being threatened. 

A few other cognitive biases can also help to explain why people have begun to act more cavalierly about COVID-19 as the pandemic continues, and therefore why there may be a large group of people who refuse to take the vaccine. One bias, threat habituation, can cause us to become more nonchalant about the threat we are facing. Throughout the pandemic, we have been bombarded with messages about its danger, but those who have not experienced the danger of it itself – been exposed to COVID-19 –  may come to believe that the threat is being blown out of proportion.2 Our declining concern for the pandemic can also be described as caution fatigue, a term coined by professor of psychiatry Dr. Jacki Gollan. Caution fatigue occurs when our energy to remain cautious diminishes, as time has gone on and it has become more and more unclear when the pandemic will end.2

Psychological reactance, threat habituation and caution fatigue are all cognitive biases that demonstrate it will be difficult to get people to listen to experts’ vaccine advice. Scientists and policymakers will have to find creative ways to promote the vaccine, because relying on their expertise is no longer enough to sway people’s behavior. 

2. The Likelihood of Listening to Experts can be Culture-Dependent

By The Boston Globe, to survive the coronavirus, the United States must tighten up (March 2020)

Another factor that determines whether or not people are likely to listen to experts is culture. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen different countries employ different tactics for flattening the curve. In particular, there has been a stark contrast between authoritarian and democratic countries. China, an authoritarian country, was quick to take drastic measures as the outbreak began in March and put mandatory lockdown restrictions in place before the rest of the world had even come to terms with COVID-19. The U.S., by contrast, was much slower to impose restrictions and saw their numbers soar as a result.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has therefore brought to light is that people’s trust in experts can be culture-dependent. Asian countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia are used to having many strict government-imposed rules. The prevailing ideology in these authoritarian countries is that of collectivism, which promotes self-criticism, whereas North American countries like the U.S. adhere to individualism, which promotes self-enhancement.4 In other words, individuals in collectivist countries are more likely to believe something bad might happen to them if they do not comply with authority, and they are therefore more willing to adhere  to government-imposed rules.4 They are more likely to be prone to the pessimism bias that suggests we overestimate the likelihood of negative events happening to us. These differing ideals may in part be due to the fact that Asian countries with stricter rules have historically experienced more disasters and come to learn (the hard way) that rules can help save lives. Alternatively, people with individualistic ideologies are more likely to believe that good things will happen to them and are less likely to fear punishment or disaster if they do not follow authority’s guidelines. 

Individualistic countries are also more concerned about the freedoms of individuals, rather than the goals of society. This may help explain why the U.S. saw people quickly panic in response to the virus and behave in ways that would protect themselves, such as stealing masks and hoarding toilet paper. People in individualistic countries are more reluctant to give things up for others because they care more about the self than the group.

When it comes to beating the COVID-19 pandemic, these cultural differences in behavior suggest that overcoming the pandemic isn’t just about which nation has the most resources; it is also about the kind of behavior that is normalized in each country. Since North America’s prevailing ideologies are less helpful than collectivist countries when it comes to handling disasters, success may need to incorporate a shift in cultural patterns. 

3. Has Anti-Rationalism Become a Virtue?

By The New York Times, ‘The Death of the Expertise’ Explores How Ignorance became a Virtue (March 2017). 

In his book The Death of the Expertise, Tom Nichols, an academic specialist in international affairs, examines the growing disdain of expertise which he labels as a campaign against established knowledge. In this book, Nichols draws together articles and arguments made by various academics in recent years that help explain why people no longer seem to be listening to the experts for guidance on how to behave. 

Nichols attributes Trump’s 2016 presidential win to this growing phenomenon, suggesting that Trump capitalized on the fact that people are increasingly resistant to intellectual authority, as they believe authorities to be infringing on their freedom. The phenomenon is especially strong in the U.S., a country that prides itself on ideals of libertarianism and egalitarianism. 

One of the reasons humans don’t assess information in rational manners – taking into consideration both sides of an argument and weighing out the data to make an informed decision –  can be explained by the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias stipulates that people give much greater weight to evidence that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This tendency is exacerbated in modern times by the vast amount of data at the tip of our fingers thanks to search-engines and websites like Google and Wikipedia. Even when people do encounter information that contradicts their beliefs, instead of meaningfully reflecting on this knowledge and allowing it to change their views, Nichols suggests that people often double-down on their beliefs. He calls this the backfire effect: when the desire to maintain a belief is so strong that we ignore hard evidence against it. This may too be explained due by  loss aversion, a cognitive bias demonstrating that  the negative power of losing something is stronger than the positive power of gaining that same thing. In other words, we hold onto our beliefs so that we don’t have to endure the painful experience of giving them up. 

Behavioral science may now be more necessary than ever, as it can help explain human behavior in a time marked by an aversion to listening to experts. Behavioral science models, particularly behavioral economics models, depart from the belief that people are rational and instead acknowledge that we are influenced by cognitive biases, including the confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and loss aversion. In a time during which people frequently believe in not believing in experts and data, we may need to turn to behavioral science to understand why, and try to nudge people once again toward trust in the experts. 

4. Female Experts are Less Likely to be Listened to 

By Vox, The #ManPanel problem: why are female experts still so widely ignored? (March 2016)

Despite the fact that there have been great strides toward gender equality in the past decade, there still exists a great disparity between the trust granted to experts of different sexes. In 2017, the editorial board at WomenAlsoKnowStuff conducted a study on New York Times articles written back in the 2016 primary race. This study found that over 80% of the political scientists quoted in the articles about the election were men. Similar trends were found in other media outlets, causing us to ask: why is it that fewer female experts are cited in the media?

Unfortunately, people have always perceived women’s intelligence to be lower than that of men. In 1978, researcher H. W. Hogan asked over 2000 participants to rate the intelligence of their parents and grandparents. Hogan found that both female and male participants projected higher IQ’s onto their male relatives than their female ones.7 What’s more is that when asked to rate their own intelligence, women greatly underestimated their own IQ’s while men overestimated theirs.7 These results demonstrate our implicit bias that women aren’t as smart as men; naturally, this bias makes news outlets more likely to turn to male experts for evidence or reasoning. The results of this study also show that even female journalists are more likely to pick male experts to back up their articles.

The lack of representation of female experts in the media might also be dependent on the topic of the articles. Research has shown that we are more likely to overestimate men’s intelligence in certain domains, such as mathematics and rational thinking. These areas are often ones in which people want to hear from an expert – and, when you hear the word expert, you might first think of scientists or policy makers. This might be one reason why one study found that 75% of national security and foreign affairs news commentators are men on primetime cable in the U.S. Not all fields require expert commentary, but ones that do are often male-dominated.

Moreover, the lack of representation of female experts in media outlets isn’t just because people are less likely to select quotes or data from female experts – it is a symptom of a larger problem of gender inequality. Women face barriers every step of the way in their career and as a result, there are fewer female experts to choose from in many lines of work. These embedded gender biases in the workplace need to first be addressed to give women a chance to become trusted (and therefore commonly cited) experts.

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