Listening to Experts Inhibits Decision Making in the Brain and How Learning Can Be Illusory

From Wired Science, college students given "expert opinions" before making choices in a financial decision-making paradigm, turned off executive function areas when decisions had to be made. The expert in this case was an Emory University economist who advises the Federal Reserve. "But students tended to follow his advice regardless of the situation, especially when it was bad. When thinking for themselves, 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 Noussair, activity in those regions flat lined."

Certainly these days, its easy to point fingers at mistakes made by financial experts, but in Nicholas Kristof's Learning How to Think article, he reminds us of the "Dr. Fox effect" to which it seems all sorts of educated groups (college students, medical professionals, academics) are susceptible (..but one wonders whether less educated groups are less susceptible?)

The Dr. Fox lectures originated in the 1970s when researchers invited a small group of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social worker educators for a training session. The session was led by "Dr. Myron L. Fox", who was in reality a trained actor who looked authoritative and distinguished and was preceded by an impressive, but fictional curriculum vitae.

"Dr. Fox's topic was to be "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education." His source material was derived from a complex but sufficiently understandable scientific article geared to lay readers. One of the authors, on two separate occasions, coached the lecturer to present his topic and conduct his question and answer period with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements. All this was to be interspersed with parenthetical humor and meaningless references to unrelated topics."

What was the result? The lecture was overwhelmingly a success, favorable opinions significantly outnumbering unfavorable opinions: "Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening. Has warm manner. Good flow, seems enthusiastic...Extremely articulate. Interesting, wish he dwelled more on background. Good analysis of subject that has been personally studied before. Very dramatic presentation. He was certainly captivating. Somewhat disorganized. Frustratingly boring. Unorganized and ineffective. Articulate. Knowledgeable."

With access to the Internet, "experts" are even more accessible than ever before - so it is wise for students to develop a regular habit of thinking critically and analyzing what they see or read. UCLA professor Patricia Greenfield goes as far as to suggest that technology is producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis

If you think you may be immune to the Fox effect, you are probably not. Experts come in all different varieties - including mentors, peers, and social networks. From famous experiments in the 1950s, Dr. Solomon Asch showed that, if surrounded by people (7 in this case) who come to an apparently incorrect conclusion, only 1 in 4 resist the incorrect conclusion - and still this person is likely to conform 50% of the time.

Decision-making by committee
Eide Neurolearning Blog: fMRI of Peer Pressure
HT: /


  1. Terrific post!
    We all seem to be living out the consequences of policy makers believing all they were told by experts on the economy.

    Here are two links to add to your scrapbook.

    The first is NOT a Dr. Fox type. It is from card-carrying experts at Harvard, explaining in tedious detail how imaginative financial "experts" were able to create and market products now called "toxic assets" that "create value out of thin air." A paper by Professors Josh Coval and Erik Stafford refers to "structured finance products" and the lecture runs about forty-five minutes before the Q&A section. I couldn't resist a snarky post including the link.

    Second link is a delightful site that has been around for several years, The Postmodern Generator, which reels out endless erudite-sounding papers, complete with bibliographies, that are completely meaningless. Be sure to "refresh" a few times to generate new papers each time.

  2. yes, great post! here's what i just said in response to a friend who linked to it on facebook:

    the "dr fox effect" is something i am always concerned @ as a teacher, altho i didn't have a name for it til now! can't wait to tell my students that there is actually a name for what i was saying in telling them why i don't assign research papers.

    some might say (some of my closest colleagues included!) that that's "anti-intellectual" or anti-academic but i think quite the reverse:

    if we are trying to truly inspire and develop critical thinking, then, we need to give our students 'free spaces' where they read and think ON THEIR OWN, not filtered through the lens of "expert" opinions...

    students in my current af am lit class were just told: "this is NOT a research paper. i do not care if everyone in the world disagrees with your interpretation of the text: write your interpretation, back it up. if you can back it up, it's right. period."

    the looks on their faces were priceless... precious? yes, that too.

    thanks again for sharing this!