How to Talk to Experts

Healthcare has always had experts at its heart.  Patients have come to rely on the expertise of dentists, pharmacists, physicians and so on.  But just how well do we understand the psychology of expert decision making?

This is a critically important issue for a number of reasons.  First, there appears to be a crisis in our faith of experts.  If we are to address this we need to understand the basis on which experts make their decisions so that this can be explained, understood and appreciated.  Second, technology is appearing to start to question the value of human decision makers.  If we are to rely on AL and Machine Learning then what might we be losing by no longer accessing expert human judgment.  And finally, if healthcare brands are to enhance their standing with experts, in an environment where technology offers them access to so many alternative sources, then what is a healthcare company to do?

Defining experts

Experts are considered to be individuals who have extensive knowledge that is: 1) area-specific, 2) consistent over time, and 3) related to both theory and practice.[1] The general benchmark for expertise is ten years’ experience in a field where expertise is indeed possible – that is, where there is a reason to believe one person’s judgments may be better than someone else’s.[2] It’s possible, for example, to be an expert in meteorology, because some people have had extensive training working with and reading the different weather sensory tools and others have not. One cannot, though, be an expert in astrology, for which no formal training or knowledge exists.

It’s important to study experts differently for a few reasons, the crux of which is: they’re different. They contain more knowledge and experience in their field than the average person, which affects how they make sense of and utilise information. Understanding the functional processes of experts is important because their status means their decisions have the potential to extend farther than their office walls.

How do experts make decisions?

Experts are not immune to the same heuristics and biases that can cloud our own decision-making capabilities. But when it comes to things relevant to their area of expertise, there are a number of things that differentiate how they work.

Conventional wisdom tells us that experts take in more information than the average person when considering a problem. In fact, experts have actually been found not to use more information when making decisions.[3] They don’t need to – one of the things that makes them experts is the amount of information they have been exposed to, making it easier for them to tell when things fit together and when they don’t. This gives them, for example, stricter criteria for considering something a good drug versus a bad drug. [4]

Nevertheless, while experts don’t rely on greater amounts of information than novices, the way they use information is different. Where novices tend to go straight into problem-solving mode, experts spend more time working toward understanding the problem.[5] This sort of inferential processing helps them identify patterns. Finally, experts more often work in a goal-oriented fashion, prioritising long-term goals over short-term ones. [5]

What’s the best way to communicate with experts?

Whether it be trying to alert cosmetology experts about a great new product, or using research data to convince a corporate board to take a particular course of action, many of us are tasked with trying to communicate with experts. Given what we know about how experts make decisions, here are some key learnings for how to do this most effectively:

First, we should do our best to keep pitches succinct. In addition to being strapped for time, many experts are looking first and foremost to see if what we’re saying passes their own litmus test. Keeping content concise helps experts determine this more efficiently. Second, given what we know about experts’ affinity for patterns, we can gather that they, like most of us, are often interested in maintaining the status quo. So when trying to pitch a new product, be careful to frame it not as Revolutionary but Evolutionary from what they’re doing/using now. [6]

Lastly, when it comes to decision-making, it’s important to give experts a reasonable amount of autonomy. Advice is automatically less attractive when individuals feel like the advice limits their personal freedoms – specifically, the freedom to make their own choice. Perceived limitations here can threaten self-esteem, which has the potential to be particularly damaging when dealing with experts. This is because much of their ‘expert’ identity depends on their ability to be considered among the most knowledgeable in their field.[6] Put another way: a large part of being perceived as an expert is acting like one. As such, many experts face strong internal pressure to appear confident, adaptable, and, crucially, autonomous.[5]

So as tempting as it may be to recommend a specific product or service to someone in an expert role, it may be more worthwhile to instead a) share facts about a given product/service or b) provide guidance around the process they might use to decide, in turn leaving the ultimate decision to the expert.[7]

By Colin Strong & Jordana Moser


[1] Herbig, B. & Glockner, A. (2009). “Experts and decision making: First steps towards a unifying theory of decision making in novices, intermediates and experts.” Preprints of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.

[2] Shanteau, J. & Stewart, T. (1992). “Why study expert decision making? Some historical perspectives and comments.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (53), 95-106.

[3] Shanteau, J. (1992). “Competence in experts: The role of task characteristics.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (53), 252-266.

[4] Herbig, B. & Glockner, A. (2009). “Experts and decision making: First steps towards a unifying theory of decision making in novices, intermediates and experts.” Preprints of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.

[5] Chi, M., Glaser, R., & Farr, M. (1988). “The Nature of Expertise.” Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

[6] Maintaining professional identity: Doctors’ responses to complaints Allsop and Mulcahy 1998

[7] Dalal, R. & Bonaccio, S. (2020) “What types of advice do decision-makers prefer?” Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes (112), 11-23.