Is This Really a Significant Factor in How We Choose Our Teachers and Mentors?

Whether it’s choosing a piano teacher, thesis/dissertation advisor, career mentor, or decluttering consultant to spark more joy in our lives, how do we choose the people we choose?

Logically, it would make sense for us to select the person with the greatest expertise, or the best track record of helping people achieve success. But then again, as neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has said , “Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

So do we do the logical or “smart” thing when we’re teacher or mentor-shopping? And pick the person who, in theory, has the greatest ability to help us succeed?

Or are we secretly influenced by other things, like compliments about how good we sound, how well we play, how talented or smart we are, and so forth?

Hmm…we couldn’t possibly be that susceptible to flattery, could we?

Analyzing The Voice

An international team of researchers (Hur et al., 2020) conducted a series of studies to look at this question, in part, by analyzing how contestants on the reality tv show The Voice made their mentor choices on the show.

In case you don’t know how the show works (and FWIW, I totally didn’t), The Voice is a singing competition somewhat like American Idol, but where the contestants perform a blind audition for four judges who are professional musicians themselves. So it’s a little like an orchestral audition, except that instead of the judges being behind a screen, they are sitting in chairs with their backs to the stage. If the judges like what they hear, and are interested in coaching and advising the artist in the competition, they turn their chair around to face the contestant to signal their interest in working with them.

Some contestants get no offers for coaching, and others get just one interested coach. But there are those whose performances move multiple judges to turn their chairs around. And these contestants must then choose which of the judges they would like to be coached and advised by during the remainder of the competition.

So it’s an important choice, and one they have to make on the spot, as the judges make a case for why the contestant should join their “team.” (In case you’re curious, here’s a 5-min example of one contestant to give you a sense of what this process looks like from start to finish.)

We’ll get to the question of how contestants actually make their choice in a moment, but first, let’s look at how potential contestants on the show predicted they would make their decision.

What people say they would do

The researchers approached 37 participants who were on their way to a regional audition for a spot on The Voice, and asked how they would choose a coach if selected for the show and ended up in that position.

They were asked to rank order the following criteria: 

  1. Expertise: a coach has a great expertise in a type of music you play
  2. Mentoring experience: a coach has many successful artists who won the show as mentees in past 
  3. Personality fit: you and a coach get along and enjoy the time together
  4. Positive feedback: a coach gives positive feedback and compliments about your performance
  5. Honest feedback: a coach gives honest feedback and criticism about your performance
  6. Other (specify here): _________________________

Which criteria mattered least?

Positive feedback was ranked significantly lower than any of the criteria – lower than expertise, mentoring experience, personality fit, and honest feedback.

Ok. So that’s what they say, but what would contestants on the show actually do?

The Voice

In a follow-up study, the researchers analyzed four out of the first 5 seasons of the voice, and found that there were 119 contestants who had to choose between at least two judges.

Two coders were tasked with rating the positivity of each judge’s behavioral reactions to the contestant after turning their chair around. Like smiling, nodding along, and so on.

Then, they analyzed transcripts of the episodes to determine the positivity of each judge’s verbal reactions to the contestant. Which might include phrases like “beautiful voice,” “amazing gift,” “so much passion,” “it’s crazy how advanced you are,” etc.

Another variable was the judge’s area of expertise, i.e. the genre of music in which they specialized or performed themselves. Because it would make sense for the degree of match between the judge’s musical genre and that of the contestant to be a potential deciding factor too.

The researchers also determined the judges’ advising experience by calculating the number of contestants that they had successfully coached to a win on the show.

So what did the contestants do – make decisions based on expertise and mentoring experience? Or on the positivity of the judges’ feedback?

And the criteria that was most predictive is…

Well, as it turns out, previous success in advising contestants to success was NOT a significant factor in most contestants’ decisions.

And while expertise (i.e. genre overlap) WAS a meaningful predictor of which judge the contestants chose, the amount of positivity expressed by the judges in the few minutes between turning their chairs around and the contestant making a choice was actually a stronger predictor of the contestants’ choice than expertise.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, based on the sample clip above, no, how quickly the judges turned their chairs around wasn’t a significant predictor of their choice. That said, I don’t believe the researchers looked at the order in which the judges turned their chairs around, which might have been an interesting variable to look at too.)

So what are we to make of this?

Takeaways (for advisees)

Well, first off, this study isn’t saying that we throw expertise out the window when we make decisions about whom to choose as a teacher, coach, mentor, or advisor. It’s just saying that we tend to vastly underestimate how much of an influence that mentor’s positivity, enthusiasm, or flattery may have in our decision.

So what are we to do about this?

The researchers suggest that it’s important to know this about ourselves when choosing an advisor, so we can take a step back and make sure we’re not choosing someone just because they seem to think that we’re great, and pass up opportunities to work with mentors who may have more expertise but are somewhat less effusive in their praise of our abilities. One suggestion they give is to have a checklist, or pre-rank our mentor choices, so the emotion in the moment doesn’t have an outsized influence on our decisions.

Takeaways (for advisors)

On the flip side, when we are the potential mentor, seeking to work with a new student or advisee, the researchers suggest that compliments (genuine ones, of course), and expressing enthusiasm for working with that student (both in our words and actions/body movements) could be the thing that tips the balance in our favor.

…but what do you think?

This is the sort of thing that feels difficult to be accurately introspective about. As in, I too would like to think that I’ve sought out mentors or teachers who were best able to provide the guidance I most needed, regardless of how positively they may have spoken of my abilities or playing. 

But I have to confess that I do remember shutting down a little in coachings or master classes where I didn’t feel like the teacher recognized how good I thought I was. Even though, looking back, I have to admit that they were totally right, and I really did need to work on what they were trying to get me to change…(which is making me wonder if one of the keys to being effective in master classes is making learners feel validated and good about themselves first, so they might then be more open to working on things that may be difficult for them to acknowledge.)

But anyhow, I’d be curious to know what you think of the findings of these studies. Do you think we’re more prone to the effects of flattery when selecting a teacher or mentor than we might realize?


Hur, J. D., Ruttan, R. L., & Shea, C. T. (2020, March 16). The Unexpected Power of Positivity: Predictions Versus Decisions About Advisor Selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

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6 Responses

  1. Interesting study. But as a psychologist and “coach,” I would question whether the sample they used is representative of most musicians. Anyone who chooses to audition for “The Voice” or other TV shows may have certain personality “qualities” that predispose them to attention-seeking and finding a quick fix on their path to success. While flattery and attention feel good for anyone, it would be great if this type of study were used with more “serious” music students. For example, evaluating conservatory students and how they might choose their private music teacher might be enlightening. But thanks for sharing this!

  2. I worked for three yrs. with an instructor, who while a highly regarded performer and pedagogue, used an approach to teaching that focused solely on pointing out and correcting errors. I usually left lessons feeling discouraged. I had the opportunity at one point to work on chamber music with another instructor who expressed enthusiasm/excitement for music and was positive about my playing. This person said things like “I like how you did …. it would be even better if you … or why not try …” I remember feeling excited about going back to the practice room afterwards. This was a single coaching session 40 yrs. ago. I still remember it and try to take a similar approach when I teach. So, yes, expertise, but I think there has to first be a positive connection between mentor and student.

  3. Hello Noa,
    My parents were both musicians. When I was a budding young cellist my parents decided who I would be study with And there was no discussion about it! The teacher would be Mr. Janos Starker because he had a fantastic reputation as a teacher and performer. It didn’t matter that he was formidable, and could be intimidating . He was considered the best. I have course heard the rumors that he could be bitingly critical, and I wanted someone who would be nice! As it turned out of course, he was an exemplary mentor, someone who not only was a great teacher but who is supportive and for those of us who were lucky enough to study with him he taught us how to teach and pass on the legacy. ( and he rarely complimented anyone!)
    I believe that one of the most important criteria is someone who is excellent At the craft of teaching and communicating ideas and approaches to the instrument, not necessarily effusive with complements,- someone you are compatible with, who you admire, who you believe in!

  4. Flattery can work initially, especially if you’ve never had it before and are bereft of mentoring. I worked with someone (after going through 3 other teachers), for an 8 month period, initially propped up by flattery, promises of solo recitals, and musical analysis I’d never experience, that took me through those months.

    After a few months of joy at the interpretive parts of the lessons, I became increasingly more and more discouraged and frightened to play. No practical technical problems were ever addressed, even after repeated inquiries, therefore any actual polishing and interpretation were eschewed because accuracy and confidence wasn’t consistent enough for stability on the keyboard. Requests to connect to other students never materialized. I left the last lesson in tears and though I taped it, haven’t had the courage to listen to him tearing down every single thing possible.

  5. This is such a complex problem. I note that the studies didn’t even attempt to address which selection criteria actually led to the best result for the contestant (no surprise–how would one even measure that?).

    Also, positivity, flattery and enthusiasm are not the same things, and I wish the study (and this post) had been more precise about that. I think it’s important–for both mentor and student–to understand the differences, as well as what they’re looking for or need, or put out. Since it’s more likely that mentors have more experience with these relationships than do students, they do bear more responsibility for assessing that aspect of compatibility.

    A thought specifically about The Voice, Songland and similar shows–it often strikes me that the primary goal of the contest is to make raw talent as marketable as possible, which is often, but not always, synonymous with developing artistic potential to its fullest. Neither goal is better for every individual, nor are these the only goals possible, but both parties need to be very clear about what the goal(s) is (are).

  6. A mentor/coach is supposed to make you “shine” not teach you to play your instrument or sing in this case. That is what a teacher does.
    Encouragement to ‘shine’ implies that the work is mostly done.
    I would choose a mentor who is impressed with what I can do and realistically believes in what I can achieve (in the case of The Voice, win a terrific contract). When I mentor my students, I try to be confident FOR them until they can be confident for themselves. It is important that a mentor doesn’t go to far with this, because if you tell an artist something they cannot believe, they will get a tremendous fear of failure and mess up. You need the right dose for each artist.
    The message I want to hear from my teachers is usually that it is hard, but worth it. From a teacher, I expect to be inspired to work. When I teach others, I always make sure that inspiration is part of the class and I have seen it be effective.
    If you don’t see potential in a student, you can’t inspire them. If you DO see potential but never let your student know, it won’t help them.
    So the teacher inspires the artist to work and the mentor encourages the artist to exhibit all of it.

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