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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?


References

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000756

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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