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Open Access Publications from the University of California

What we ought to do is…’: Are we More Willing to Defer to Experts who Provide Descriptive Facts Than Those who Offer Prescriptive Advice?


A considerable amount of cognition is, in some way, social. Here we consider one example: our reliance upon experts for information about phenomenon within a particular domain. Novices and experts share some knowledge within a domain in question which is crucial for knowing when to seek expert advice and how to evaluate that advice. Just when we decide to relinquish our own knowledge or skill in deference to an expertise remains an important question for cognitive scientists. Here we explored some conditions that might influence when we choose to defer to experts. In two experiments (N=570) we demonstrated that participants have a greater willingness to defer when experts have provide descriptive information (i.e., facts) about their domain of expertise, than when they provide prescriptive advice about what we ought to do with those facts. We interpret these results from the perspective that individuals exercise greater vigilance when given prescriptive advice in the form of normative statements. From this perspective individuals feel threatened, and therefore are less deferential, when experts tell them what to do, rather than share knowledge with them.

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