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  • Experts are losing the public’s trust and brands are facing scepticism
  • Experts are losing the public’s trust and brands are facing scepticism
    Alex Hudson (2019) ©
REPORT

How did the cult of the amateur kill off experts?

Where once experts were regarded as symbols of authority and respect, today they are overshadowed by influencers, personal opinions, and instant gratification. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Tom Nichols, to find out the reasons and impacts behind the era of self-proclaimed experts.

Location Global

Scope
In 2019, ‘deepfake’ made it into the Collins Dictionaries’ list of most notable words, just two years after ‘fake news’ was chosen as their top term. [1] [2] In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as its international word of the year, following a 2,000% increase in its use. [3] No matter their level of knowledge about media and politics, people all across society are becoming more critical of the information they receive from figures of authority who have specialist skills, advanced knowledge or mastery of a particular subject – also known as experts.

As a consequence of this distrust, ordinary people are taking it into their own hands to find the information they feel they can no longer get from specialists, and are turning to self-diagnosing via online symptom-checkers. [4] This desire for a fast track to knowledge is also normalising shortcuts to knowledge, from one-week yoga teacher trainings (where in-depth anatomy studies would usually be expected) to weekend management certifications. What has resulted, according to Dr. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, is a climate of intellectual egalitarianism where “every opinion must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.” [5]

When a journalist decided to start a fake Instagram poetry account and do everything he could to make these poems as bad as possible, he was bewildered to receive positive comments and rapidly growing numbers of followers, raising debate of personal taste versus poetic discernment. [6] “People feel very strongly that they should have full autonomy in their opinion even if they haven’t done the work to understand what they’re saying,” says Dr. Nichols, “and that’s part of why we get so many strong opinions about public policy and foreign affairs, for example.” 

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Security seeking
In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow established a hierarchy of human needs, where he identified physiological and safety needs as the top two human priorities. From the police force to the medical service, people have been putting their trust in traditional institutions to provide them this safety. However, a study by Edelman revealed that 46% of people globally don’t believe the system “works for me” and 47% of people don’t trust the government or the media. [8]

While not all people in positions of power and authority are to blame for this lack of trust, Dr. Nichols believe it’s nonetheless “the failure of experts that has made people distrust experts.” [5] And when citizens no longer trust established leaders to guarantee their health, wellbeing, and safety, they are more likely to look to new sources of information to try to regain a sense of control over their lives. Indeed, 65% of people say they trust search engines the most when looking for news or information. [9] “People need to feel empowered,” explains Dr. Nichols. “And so rather than simply say, ‘I will trust human beings, I will trust that my doctor is competent, I will trust that diplomats know how to negotiate arrangements and agreements’, they say ‘I have to do this myself’ or ‘I don’t trust anybody else’.” [5]

Out of a need for control of their environment, people are rejecting advice from human beings and instead turning to algorithms for reassurance. A study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that 80% of internet users have searched for a health-related topic online, with some people’s distrust of doctors going so far that they feel inclined to dispense their own medical advice. [10] [4] Non-medically-trained health influencers share tips on everything from cancer-curing recipes to treating unwanted eating patterns through personal fulfilment. [11] [12] But with over 66 million fake profiles existing on Facebook alone, the information that people find online doesn’t always come with a guarantee of accuracy, perpetuating the cycle of unverified statistics and the lack of reliable facts for informed decision-making. [13]

People are feeling pressured to appear knowledgeable in all domains
People are feeling pressured to appear knowledgeable in all domains
[email protected] (2019) ©

Status signalling
While some people turn away from traditional figures of authority as a survival mechanism, others, according to Dr. Nichols, are driven by social fear. “The unifying thread underneath it all is self-actualisation,” he says. “It’s a sense of insecurity about who am I, what I know, and my competence as a person.” And in the digital age, competency is often defined by possession of information. “If you go back to the industrial age, what really mattered? ‘I’m strong, I’m a good worker’. In the post-industrial age, people said ‘I’m a good manager, I have organisational skills, I can run an office. ’In the information age, it’s ‘I know things, I am smart, I can manipulate information’.” [5]

Possession of information as a status symbol is most clearly demonstrated in the way high-net-worth individuals are using cultural capital, rather than material goods, to signal their position in society. [14] And according to Dr. Nichols, men are particularly susceptible to this: “men invest a great amount of stock in knowing things as a sign of social dominance.” [5] This is often reflected in the importance society places on men's status at work, with 68% of Americans saying men face a lot of pressure to be successful in their job or career. [15] As a result, men “are more resistant to being corrected or accepting new information because of their identity. And when the world becomes so complicated that you can’t know a lot of things, they find that threatening.” [5]

While it may affect men more strongly, all genders and demographics are concerned – “as we move from the post-industrial age to the information age, people increasingly feel threatened by their lack of ability to command information,” Dr. Nichols explains. [5] With 74% of people reporting feeling overwhelmed by the number of emails they receive, processing information is a daily challenge for many. [16] But information has become the new social currency, and slashie influencers like Rachel Hollis have become the new figures of faith, attracting millions of followers. [17][18] People are feeling pressured to appear knowledgeable in all domains, while also “feeling entitled to be treated as if they have that expertise,” Dr. Nichols adds. “It’s a terrifying combination of arrogance and insecurity at the same time.” [5]

Some 68% of Americans say men face pressure to be successful in their job
Some 68% of Americans say men face pressure to be successful in their job
AllGo (2019) ©

Gratification generation
The misunderstanding of the role of experts in society can also be traced back to a culture of instant gratification. With all the world’s wisdom available at the click of a button, the internet has democratised information and learning – taking YouTube alone, 80% of Gen Zers say they use the platform to learn something new. [19] However, this quick access to knowledge runs the risk of people no longer believing that knowledge and expertise take time to acquire. Dr. Nichols experiences this first-hand when he teaches: “I say to students ‘I get paid to talk about this. We are not equals on this, there’s a reason that I stand on the other side of the podium from you’.” [5]

A 2019 Sutton Trust survey found that 20% of 11- to 16-year-olds thought that university was not important and 42% of young people believe apprenticeships offer the same value as degrees. [20] While the reasons for this may be varied, Dr. Nichols points out that today’s climate of immediacy often creates the illusion that everything, no matter how complex, is straightforward. “A high level of technological advancement makes things look easy,” Dr. Nichols explains. “How hard can it be to fly an airplane? What people don’t realise is that it’s really hard. People look around them and they say, ‘I send an email from my phone, I watch 118 channels – how hard can any of this be?’ They have fallen into the notion that it’s just not hard to do things.” [5]

According to Dr. Nichols, younger generations may also have a harder time accepting the notion of expertise, “because they were brought up to be inclusive. And expertise by its nature is exclusive.” What has resulted is a catch-22, where authoritative knowledge is viewed as undemocratic elitism, but the possession of cultural capital is revered as the ultimate status symbol. So what does the future hold for education, information and academia, and what roles can brands play in shaping it? 

Some 80% of internet users have searched for a health-related topic online
Some 80% of internet users have searched for a health-related topic online
Manny Pacheco (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
While experts are losing the public’s trust, brands and advertisements are also facing this scepticism from consumers. Although Dr. Nichols observes that some people are “uncritically watching commercials and picking up the phone to start arguing with their doctor” about the medication they want, only 34% of people trust most of the brands they buy or use, and three in four people have actively taken measures to avoid all forms of advertising. [5] [21] In a fragile climate where consumers’ positive opinion of companies hangs by a thread, brands can maintain customer loyalty by building solid relationships with their clients by being communicative and living up to brand values.

At a time when information has a monetary value, brands also have the opportunity to cater to their information-hungry consumers by sharing product ingredients, company history, or industry news, and become trusted providers of reliable content. Seed University, for example, is providing courses for people who want to become brand influencers as a way of ensuring that they are sharing accurate information with consumers, and creating a trustworthy and authentic image for the brand. [22]

Brands need to seize this opportunity now because, according to Dr. Nichols, the obsession with information won’t last forever. One way the anti-expert wave can end, Dr. Nichols predicts, is when “people become comfortable with, and tired of, living in a high-information world,” just like people did in the 50s with cars or in the 60s with TV – “everybody has them now, so they’re just not interesting anymore.” It sounds like it’s time for brands to build the information legacy they wish to leave before “people eventually burn out” and lose interest in information for good. [5]

Sources
1.'"Climate strike" named Word of the Year by Collins Dictionary' The Bookseller (November 2019)
2.'"Cuffing season" and "Corbynmania" are named Words of the Year by Collins Dictionary', The Telegraph (November 2017)
3.'"Post-truth" named Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year', The Bookseller (November 2016)
4.'How are the "Worried Well" transforming healthcare?' Canvas8 (July 2019)
5.Interview with Dr. Tom Nichols conducted by Canvas8
6.'I faked my way as an Instagram poet, and it went bizarrely well', VICE (September 2019)
7.'A theory of human motivation', Abraham Maslow (1943)
8.'2019 Edelman Trust Barometer', Edelman (2019)
9.'2019 Online Reputation Management Statistics', ReputationX (November 2019)
10.'More people search for health online', NBC News (July 2019) 
11.'Cancer-Free with food' (2019)
12.'Hungry for More', Mel Wells (2019)
13.'Why do so many people fall for fake profiles online?' PhysOrg (September 2018) 
14.'How are status symbols evolving in the US?' Canvas8 (March 2019)
15.'On gender differences, no consensus on nature vs. nurture', Pew Research Center (December 2017)
16.'74% of consumers overwhelmed by email overload, says survey', Media Post (August 2017) 
17.'The rise of "slashies": how many people actually want to hold down multiple jobs?'’ Huffington Post (April 2019)
18.'Rachel Hollis' (2019)
19.'Understanding Gen Z through the lens of YouTube', Think with Google (August 2018)
20.'Do school leavers still dream of a uni education?' Canvas8 (October 2019)
21.'In brands we trust?' Edelman (2019) 
22.'Seed University: Creating a new breed of influencer', Canvas8 (July 2019)

Featured Experts

Dr. Tom Nichols

Dr. Tom Nichols is a US Naval War College professor, and an adjunct at the US Air Force School of Strategic Force Studies and the Harvard Extension School. He is a specialist on Russian affairs, nuclear strategy, NATO issues, and a commentator on US politics and national security.

Author

Polina Norina is a senior behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She has a background in editorial project management and copywriting, and has previously worked on New York Times bestsellers in trade publishing and international comms projects for companies like Airbus. Outside of work, you can find her learning new languages, reading non-fiction or discovering new design innovations.

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