Effect of Expert Advice on Decision-Making

“A study, by three neuroscientists, at Emory University, finds that when given expert advice, the decision-making part of our brain shuts down. That’s not a big deal if the advice we are receiving is good. But what if it isn’t?“

The above is copied from a newsletter by financial guru, Kim Snider. But when I read it, my mind went straight to birth… (doesn’t it always?) She continues:

“In the study, the results of which were published in March 2009, the scientists used functional MRI to monitor the brain activity of 24 college students while they made decisions about swapping a guaranteed payment for a chance at a higher lottery payout. Sometimes the students made the decision on their own. At other times, they received written advice from an Emory University economist. Maybe not completely surprising, the advice given was followed by the students, even when it was bad.

But perhaps more interesting was what was going on in the brain. When making decisions on their own, without any expert advice, students showed activity in their anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – brain regions associated with making decisions and calculating probabilities. When given advice from [the expert], activity in those regions flat lined.

The danger with so-called expert advice is that it causes our own decision-making apparatus to shut down and it is often wrong. So what is the answer?

I have always believed the answer is to emphasize education over advice. Teach people how to be their own expert advisor. Teach the basis for making sound decisions. And failing that, teach them how to be really good at picking whom they accept advice from!”

And this from the author of the study:

“Results showed that brain regions consistent with decision-making were active in participants when making choices on their own; however, there occurred an offloading of the decision-making process in the presence of expert advice,” says Jan B. Engelmann, PhD, Emory research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and first author of the study.

“This study indicates that the brain relinquishes responsibility when a trusted authority provides expertise, says Berns. “The problem with this tendency is that it can work to a person’s detriment if the trusted source turns out to be incompetent or corrupt.”

“When the expert’s advice made the least sense, that’s where we could see the behavioral effect,” said study co-author Greg Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist. “It’s as if people weren’t using their own internal value mechanisms.”


As I said, this study deals with financial decisions, but it would apply to making decisions on birth choices as well. Add to this the stress, emotional state, and fear of a pregnant woman about to give birth and I’m not surprised at a flat-line! This knowledge emphasizes the potential impact of the care-provider, nurse, doula, and educator. Who does the pregnant woman choose as her expert?

I agree with Kim when she says, “the answer is to emphasize education over advice.”

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