Thoughts on giving advice

Recently I watched a person ask for advice and then, one by one, shoot down the various reasonable, actionable, easy-to-follow suggestions that well over a dozen people gave him. Most of the advice-seeker’s arguments for why he couldn’t follow some piece of advice or another sounded like lame excuses. In the middle of all this, one of the people who had given a suggestion got exasperated and said he couldn’t understand why anyone kept giving this guy advice.

Giving advice seems to be an activity many people are attracted to, regardless whether they receive feedback indicating their advice was followed or even seriously considered. It’s a phenomenon that powers much of the internet! I don’t know why that phenomenon of advice-giving exists, but here are some of my guesses:

  • It makes us feel like we are experts at something.
  • It shows others that we are helpful and therefore worthy of the space we take up.
  • Requests for advice present a kind of puzzle, and the problem-solving muscles in our minds enjoy hammering away at puzzles. (Each excuse for why a piece of advice can’t be followed presents a follow-up puzzle!)
  • We imagine we are turning a sort of dharmic wheel; good advice can be extremely valuable, so by our giving it to someone for free the universe (or maybe even the advice-seeker himself in some cosmic way) now owes us a reward.
  • It scratches an obsessive compulsive itch to put things to order.

It also seems strange that someone would ask for advice and then give every indication that he isn’t open to anyone’s suggestions. Here too I have my guesses for why this happens:

  • The request for advice is really a request for validation; the person actually wants to hear “Don’t worry, the way you’re doing it right now is just fine. You shouldn’t actually change after all.”
  • Each suggestion presents a kind of puzzle; solving it means finding a way it can’t be followed. The problem-solving muscles in the advice-seeker’s mind enjoy hammering away at all the little puzzles people are giving him.
  • The advice-seeker intuitively knows what the right course of action is to resolve the situation he’s in, but for whatever reason (fear, laziness, etc.) does not want to take it. So he asks for advice as a way to prove to himself he is taking steps toward resolving his situation. Then when the advice starts to pour in, he shoots it down so that he won’t actually have to take any steps whatsoever–but it will feel like he at least tried.

These two sets of biases–those of the advice-seeker and those of the advice-givers–complement each other, creating a feedback loop. That is where the phenomenon gets its power.

(This of course doesn’t mean all requests for advice are fraudulent or that giving advice is necessarily a waste of time.)

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