Anxious For (Bad?) Advice

Important decisions can be anxiety provoking. Therefore, it is somewhat unsurprising that Francesca Gino, Alison Brooks, and Maurice Schweitzer showed that people who feel anxiety — defined as “a state of distress and/or physiological arousal in reaction to stimuli including novel situations and the potential for undesirable outcomes” — are more likely to take advice from others. But what if the advice is bad?

First, why do people take advice when they are anxious and not other times? Gino, Brooks, and Schweitzer point out that anxiety — specifically the short-lived type, rather than chronic — makes us feel uncertain and not in control. To reduce this negative feeling, we look to others to help us gather information and make seemingly better informed judgements.Researchers proposed that,

…compared with individuals in a neutral state, anxious individuals will feel uncertain of their ability to make good decisions and will have low confidence in their own judgments. As a result, they will be more likely to seek advice from others and to rely more heavily on the advice they receive.

In a series of nine studies using different manipulations, Gino et al. showed that not only did anxious participants indicate lower self-confidence and seek out advice, but they were also more likely to factor the advice into their decisions. Unfortunately, however, this was the case even when it was bad advice.

Before the study, researchers had also proposed that because low-confidence widens an individual’s confidence interval (i.e. a larger set of ideas seem plausible), this would carry over to other people as well. Gino et al. found that anxious participants were less able to discriminate between good and bad advice, and factored both good and bad advice into their decisions equally. Even when the participant was made aware that the advice was from someone with conflicting interests, they still used it!

So what? Like most things, individuals rarely make decisions in isolation. Instead, they rely on advice and input from others. This research indicates that anxiety in particular increases the motivation to seek out help and social support. However, this research also provided evidence that this is not always beneficial to the individual. Future research would be greatly informed by both investigating how anxiety influences interpersonal relationships, as well as what conditions allow individuals to recognize the value of advice even when undergoing anxiety.


Francesca Gino1, Alison W. Brooks2, and Maurice E. Schweitzer2
1Harvard University; 2University of Pennsylvania
Anxiety, Advice, and the Ability to Discern: Feeling Anxious Motivates Individuals to Seek and Use Advice
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


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