By Steven G. Mehta

Mediators and attorneys are in the business of giving advice.  Advice as to what options work; advice as to how to negotiate; advice as to when to settle; and many more things.  But what advice is considered valuable by the receiver and why?   Well it is fascinating to see some of the research in this field to determine who and what is the best way to provide advice.

One study evaluated the issue of how the advice was given.  That research was performed by Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio.  Dalal and Bonaccio presented hundreds of students with fictional decision-making scenarios, such as choosing which job to apply for. The students were offered various permutations of advice and asked to say how satisfied they’d be if a friend had given them that advice. The different kinds of advice were: which option to go for; which option not to go for; info on how to make the decision (e.g. use a points allocation system); information on one or more of the options; and sympathy about the difficulty of making a decision. The study concluded that the best form of advice was informational.  While all forms of advice were positively received, the students’ consistent preference was for information about one or more of the options.

Dalal and Bonaccio then conducted a second study and varied decision-making scenarios in all different areas and changed the person giving the advice as coming from an expert in the field. Information again came out as the most preferred form of advice. However, when an expert provided the advice, specific advice on which option to go for was also particularly well received, especially in the risk/reward scenario.

This research is novel in the field because most of the other research simply provided one piece of advice such as ‘I recommend option X.’  According to the researchers, “Across the situational and dispositional variables we examined, decision-makers appeared to want their advisors to provide information about the alternatives,”

This research shows that when an attorney or mediator provides advice it is best to probably not give the evaluative advice such as “you should settle for X amount.”  Instead, it appears that the attorney or mediator should provide the advice as to why the options are good or bad and the reasons for that specific option.  In other words, provide the information that allows the party to make his or her own decision rather than providing the decision that you recommend.  However, as the study shows, advice that says ‘go for option X’ can also be well-received but only in specific circumstances, such as when advice has been explicitly solicited from an expert.  In other words, when the party asks you for which option to go for, and you are considered an expert by the party, then you can make that suggestion.

Another study was directly relevant to the issue of pro-bono mediation vs. private mediation.  A recent study conducted by Francesca Gino at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated that the fact that someone has paid for advice means it is more likely to be heeded.

The study found that people are more likely to use advice that has been paid for than advice that’s free, even if there’s no difference in quality between the two sources.

In Gino’s study, students were asked questions about American history and received small cash prizes for correct answers. The students were either given the option of receiving advice on the correct answers, or advice was imposed on them. Sometimes this advice was free; other times it was paid for out of the students’ winnings. Crucially, the advice always came from the same source so the quality of advice was held constant regardless of whether it was free or paid for.

Throughout the study, the participants took more account of advice they had paid for than advice they were given free, even though it was made clear to them that the advice was of the same quality. A final study showed the students took even more account of advice if it was made more expensive.

Gino said her findings could be explained by a phenomenon in decision-making theory known as the sunk cost fallacy. This is our desire to justify our past investments through our present and future behavior.  In the case of advice, it seems we feel compelled to use guidance we’ve paid for, so as to justify the expense.

This could have very interesting implications for pro-bono services.  In fact, when I was a law student and worked at a pro-bono clinic as a certified legal student I always wondered why they insisted on charging the clients $10.00.  Now it makes sense:  They didn’t want the advice to be free because the people would devalue it.  So the moral of the story is never give free advice, and always give your two hundred cents worth.

Research Sources:

Dalal, R., & Bonaccio, S. (2010). What types of advice do decision-makers prefer? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI:10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.11.007

GINO, F. (2008). Do we listen to advice just because we paid for it? The impact of advice cost on its use.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision ProcessesDOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2008.03.001

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