If I were you then I wouldn’t say that: The perils of giving and taking advice
The school year just started, but surprisingly, the half-term break is already lurking around the corner, when children have a week off. For a lot of parents this implies seeing their own parents, having them take care of the kids. And whenever families come together, there will be many sentences starting with: If I were you… Adult children don’t hesitate to give unsolicited advice on, for instance, the outfit choices of their partners (“If I were you I would only wear this at midnight, when it is dark and nobody can see you”), parents give advice to their own parents (“If I were you, I would take it slow), and grandparents can’t resist either (“If I were you, I would buy a house and stop renting”). Even outside the family, unsolicited advice is everywhere1. Obama telling the United Kingdom how much money to spend on the military, David Cameron advising Europe on how to handle immigration, or this blog post suggesting ways to offer advice; it is readily available. And all of these different forms of advice – hopefully with one obvious exception – have one thing in common; they backfire. While people love to dish out advice and it seems to them to be a good idea, we are not great in taking it; we rather hate it. So how to give it right?
Let’s backpedal for a second and consider why advice is a good thing in general, and why we should consider giving advice. There is an abundance of research showing that having multiple opinions to draw from when forming judgments is almost always superior to just having your own opinion (1). If people would get a lot of advice before making decisions and would weight this advice appropriately, then their judgments would improve dramatically. Yet, that is not what people do. Rather, they discount the advice of others in favour of their own opinions, even when knowing that the other person has more expertise (2); ever disagreed with your doctor? There is a rational side to such egocentric discounting; people know their own reasons for their opinion but don’t have access to the reasons of others. And giving advice that includes the reasons leads to less discounting of the advice than the same advice without reasons.
But there is also a more emotional side to the undervaluing of advice; people want to feel that their judgment is their own. Meeting another person half-way (i.e., equally weighting one’s own and an advisor’s opinion) doesn’t make the decision feel like it is ours. And even when the other person suggests exactly what we wanted to do anyway, we feel that we are now somewhat indebted to the other person. This phenomenon has plagued me my entire life. As a child, for instance, when I was about to start my homework and my mother would pop in to suggest that I should start my homework, I couldn’t anymore. I would do everything but my homework. Such reactance (3) is often cited as the main reason why providing free or unsolicited advice might not only lead people to ignore it, but rather might increase opposing tendencies. For instance, just as my mother did, Michelle Obama received a huge backlash when recommending a healthier diet for children (more fruits and vegetables etc.; you know the spiel). People expressed their intent to eat now more, rather than less unhealthy food: “And the most succinct message I would like to deliver to the government regarding its attempts to modify my eating behavior could be summed up in two words, only one of which I can actually print here.”(4) I would suspect that most of the people screaming aloud “nanny state” know that eating healthier is a good idea, but don’t want to be told so. And this effect is amplified when the advice is not only unsolicited, but also runs counter to one’s own opinion or behaviour (5).
Trying to adhere to the results of research on advice giving puts us in a difficult spot; we know that the advice if taken would be helpful, but giving it entails the chance that people will perversely do the opposite. And think of the government with all their well-meaning advice on exercise, financial planning for retirement, healthy eating, and so on; there is a chance that all this does more harm than good. With all this being said, it seems strange to attempt to give advice on advice giving. So maybe just ignore the next paragraph and do not follow any of the suggestions!
If there is one thing to take away from this blog post, it is that we should avoid as much as we can giving unsolicited advice. My father-in-law is great at that. He is a lawyer, and basically never offers any advice unless I explicitly ask for it. He knows how little good it does despite how tempting it is. The result is that I followed a lot of his advice, which is quite something given my attitude towards advice. And people in general are better in accepting advice when they seek it, especially when they pay for it (2). Furthermore, professional advice givers recommend asking questions rather than immediately telling people what to do, and especially avoiding self-centred advice (“what I would do” “If I were you”) (6); such advice highlights that the advisees are thinking about themselves, rather than the recipient. For governments this implies that they should hold back free, normative advice that runs counter to what a lot of people do (5). About half of British people, for instance, agree with me, stating that they don’t want the government to give advice on drinking and eating (7); the other half is probably eating and drinking right. Such attitudes paired with unsolicited advice might backfire, leading people to do the opposite out of spite.