We follow the wisdom of our elders, even when it is wrong. A team of researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College have found that adults and teens are unconsciously swayed by incorrect advice from older adults. Their study was published June 1 in the journal PLOS One.
The study found that “contrary to conventional wisdom that adolescents are disproportionately influenced” by people their own age, there are situations in which adolescents listen to the advice of an older adult instead of one of their own peers.
During the study, 20 adolescents and 25 adults completed a behavioral learning game in which they opened color-coded treasure boxes that had various probabilities of providing a reward. The purpose of the task was to learn which color was most likely to provide a reward.
As they were completing the task, two people claiming to have already completed the game told the participant which color was best to pick. One of the alleged previous participants was the same age as the participant, while the other was an older adult. Both of them gave inaccurate advice.
Contrary to their own expectations, the researchers found that adolescents were not more sensitive to advice from someone of their own age. Neither the adolescent nor the adult participants appeared to be swayed by the advice of the same-aged peer. But both groups showed evidence of being biased by the older adult’s advice — in spite of their own experience.
“These results underscore that older adults can guide behavior even in the face of contradictory experience, and highlight the absence of peer influence on adolescent behavior in certain situations.”
The participants did not appear to be aware that they had been swayed by the older adult’s advice but not by the same-aged peer’s advice.
After completing the treasure chest learning task, the researchers asked the participants about the advice they had received. The participants said the advice from the same-age peer was not any more or less useful than the advice from the older adult.
“Nearly all participants reported doubting both the peer and older adult advice by the end of the task. This suggests that participants had no explicit beliefs that the older adult advice was better, and rather that the instruction bias may stem from implicit mechanisms,” the researchers explained.
“These results highlight the important role that adults, such as parents and mentors, may play in shaping adolescent decisions, even when their advice runs counter to adolescents’ experience,” they concluded.