Saturday, February 8, 2014

Giving and Taking Advice

If you were facing a difficult personal or business decision would you  rely on your own judgment or would you seek advice from people who have more experience than you?

Clearly, many minds are better than one. Your own mind suffers from its own limitations, among them your limited experience.

People who get ahead in the world and who function effectively in it know how to take advice. People who follow their bliss or their impulses or their gut do not do very well in life. If you don't believe me, try investing in the stock market without doing any research or seeking out anyone's opinions.

This morning Joe Queenan offered some reflections on giving and taking advice. By his lights, Americans seek out more advice than they take.

The U.S. is addicted to advice. Americans honestly believe that someone out there knows how to fix all our problems. Maybe Oprah. Maybe Dr. Phil. Maybe Barack Obama. Maybe Ayn Rand. Newspapers, magazines and television are filled with advice about health, finances, raising children, dieting. Don't smoke. Don't text on I-95. Don't allow your teenage son Vlad to disappear into his bedroom for the next decade. Exercise 30 minutes a day. Never buy stocks from men wearing ostrich-skin shoes.

Why, then, are so many of us miserable, bankrupt, overweight chain smokers with horrible, illiterate kids? The advice was out there.

Before expounding on these matters, we do well to define our terms. Otherwise, our discussion will become confusing.

One needs to understand that giving advice is not the same as telling someone what to do. When you tell someone what to do you are giving an order. He does not have a choice between following or not following it. If he refuses to follow it, he will face a sanction.

When someone gives you some advice, you are free to follow it or not to follow it. For some people taking advice feels like following orders, but it is not. Young people, in particular, most often confuse the two. After all, they have been told what to do far more often than they have been given advice.

Next we should differentiate between specific and general advice. When you read a book or a newspaper article that offers guidance— it might be advising you to do more exercise— the advice is general. It is directed toward whomever. It is not specific to you.

A book’s saying that you should exercise more is not the same as your physician advising you to get a trainer.

You are more likely to act on the latter than the former, because you believe that your physician knows you and has your best interest at heart.

A scientific study of the benefits of exercise refers to a generalized human subject. The advice might be good for you; it probably is. But, it was not designed with your specific case in mind. You know that some people should not do too much exercise.

And then, we should differentiate between solicited and unsolicited advice. Someone who tells you that you need to lose weight is offering unsolicited advice. If you did not ask his opinion, you are not likely to follow his advice. You are more likely to believe he is intruding in matters that are none of his business.

If it is obvious that you need to lose weight, you probably know it already and you have probably been advised to do so by people who care about you and who know your medical history.

When you solicit someone’s opinion you are demonstrating your confidence in that person’s opinion. You are granting him an authority. He might offer good advice, advice that you believe to be perfectly suited to your situation. He might even offer you a different perspective on your problem, helping you to arrive at a better strategy for dealing with it. Of course, his own limitations might cause him to offer bad advice.

If an executive solicits the advice of his fellow executives or his directors he is more likely to take it. Surely, he will give it more weight than he would the unsolicited advice offered by someone who knows nothing about his business.

No one, I contend, makes the best decision by merely relying on his own experience, his own knowledge or his own sentiments. It’s crazy to think otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that it never happens.

Of course, some people refuse to take advice. They prefer to make their own mistakes. They have been told, at times even by therapists that it is bad to take advice from other people.

In the past, many psychoanalysts made it a point of pride never to give advice. They wanted their patients to explore their unconscious minds, not to learn how better to conduct their lives.

At the time, and perhaps even today, patients were conditioned to believe that anyone who offered advice was disrespecting them. They took offense and rejected the advice.

Evidently, they were suffering from the adolescent confusion between taking advice and being told what to do.

You will decide for yourself how pervasive this was, but it has certainly influenced American culture, for the worse.

Too many people have made a fetish of independence and autonomy. They believe that their best decisions the ones that have welled up from the depths of their soul or their gut. They are willing to make their own dumb mistakes because they feel that taking advice makes them children or slaves.

Apparently, this view has now invaded the world of neuroscience. Queenan’s daughter is doing graduate studies in neuroscience, so he asks her what the neuroscientists think of people who ask others for advice.

You might not expect it, but today’s scientists have merely glommed on to the culture’s anti-advice-taking attitude.

Queenan writes:

"You have to think of advice-seeking in a wider social context," says my daughter Bridget, who is getting her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Georgetown. "Asking for advice is a way of engaging with other people, interacting with other people, while simultaneously putting off a difficult decision. But it's also a way of spreading responsibility so that if things go south you have other people to blame."

Today’s neuroscience is encouraging people to make impulsive decisions without having done very much homework. It is telling them that if they ask for advice they are trying to evade responsibility and are looking for other people to blame.

Naturally, the neuroscientists believe that their view is scientific fact. It is not.

It rests on a conceptual mistake. If the hallmark of advice is that you are free to follow it or not to follow it, if taking advice is not the same as being told what to do, then when you take advice you have no one to blame but yourself.

Neuroscientists should not be offering people bad advice on making decisions.


Anonymous said...

Much of neuroscience is a disguised attack on free will, and a shameless diminishing of human capacity. Such a perspective treats man as a pre-programmed, neuron-firing robot. It seems as though social scientists exempt themselves from their findings. The neuroscientist must live a lonely, desperate existence.

Queenan's daughter gives the usual binary reduction: it's either (a) socializing masking procrastination or (b) a protection racket in case things go to hell. What about a third option: they actually want to look for superior alternatives and are open to following them? What if they are acting out of goodwill and still retain their free will? That's not a victim... that's a responsible human being looking to learn and grow! Shocking.


Ares Olympus said...

Using a "life coach" is a way of having soliciting advice, and perhaps it can be helpful just like an athletic coach - if you can accurately explain where you want to go, a coach can offer a program that will get you there if you follow it, and seems to have better chances of success, especially if you can clearly communicate what difficulties you find on the way for meeting the expectations of the training.

My running coach claimed he could help me break a 5:00 mile for instance, and I got down from a 5:40 to 5:20 mile on my own just by increasing training miles per week, but since I didn't want to specialize in the mile, it wasn't important enough for me to agree to a program. Still it was fun to have his expert judgment of what was within my reach.

On a more serious need for advice, my brother-in-law has been unemployed for two years, and has developed a sour attitude towards the world with $10,000 in debt for a two year accounting degree that is in collections. But in the meantime has a diagnosed disability that gives him SSI benefits, and spends his time playing on the computer, or watching videos, not particularly good for self-esteem.

I've wondered if I secretly paid someone to befriend him and help him regain his confidence, and suggest he needs a job, any job to feel better about himself, and when you're depressed, you don't believe it, but maybe if he set a goal - find any job you can do, and do it for 4 months and compare how you feel, and if you really feel better not working at all, then you've just lost a few hours of video time, right?

But I have some idea what a life coach must deal with - endless excuses of why the world is against me, and why that sort of work is beneath me, and, how I tried all that and I'm tired of it and don't care any more.

So if a life coach argues back and disagrees, then the old "you just don't understand what its like to be me" just keeps pushing the victim BS to a higher degree.

So maybe advice can go smaller, not 4 months, but something that can be accomplished in 4 days, and if not 4 days, 4 hours, and if not four hours, 4 minutes of ANYTHING that seemed too annoying to deal with like a confessed to-do list item that has been neglected for years is suddenly fixed, all because a problem was admitted and faced.

So its nice when you feel depressed and pessimistic to have someone else who is willing to commit their reputation that a task is within your reach, and once you have that, you still have to decide if you really want it.

But its still responsibility, and there are things beyond our control. And you can start the best small business in the world tomorrow, and find it fails simply because of timing, and so a life coach has to be careful about just being enthusiastic about encouraging risk where you end up worse than where you started for trying something new.

Charles A Pennison said...

"One needs to understand that giving advice is not the same as telling someone what to do."

Excellent point. I have a tendency to be a person who says "Just do this" without explaining why. Probably due to an impatient quality in my personality, and wanting to get things done quickly.

I believe the best coaches may be the ones who offer alternatives, and starts a dialogue on why the alternative may or may not be a better course of action.

Why is talking about it out loud important?

Richards J. Heuer, Jr. in his book "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" discusses how he works around "writer's block."

“I force myself to talk about it out loud. I close the door to my office—I am embarrassed to have anyone hear me talking to myself—and then stand up and walk around and talk. I say, okay, “What is the point of this paragraph? What are you trying to communicate?” I answer myself out loud as though talking to someone else. “The point I am trying to get across is that . . . ,” and then it just comes. Saying it out loud breaks the block, and words start coming together in different ways.

Recent research explains why this happens. Scientists have learned that written language and spoken language are processed in different parts of the brain. They activate different neurons.”

Talking out loud about problems and alternative courses of action may help change old perceptions by activating different parts of your brain.

Take and give advice in the form of alternative courses of action, and then discuss them out loud. This appears to be a good approach to solving problems.

David Foster said...

The credibility given to advice should of course differ depending on the background & experience of the advice-giver. An actor may be able to give you great advice on how to portray a character in a film or on-stage; he does should not be assigned any special credibility when it comes to *political* advice, any more than a flight instructor who can give you good advice on how to get an airplane out of a spin has any special qualifications to tell you how to get a relationship out of a metaphorical spin.

Even when the advice-giver does have strong qualifications in the subject, the advice can be very wrong when the context has change radically from his experience. Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars, felt a sense of doom when Hitler became chancellor. He felt much better after talking to his father, a wise and experienced civil servant who had no sympathy with Naziism:

"We agreed that (the new government) had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not of surviving for very long: a deeply reactionary government, with Hitler as its mouthpiece…Even with the Nazis it would not have a majority in the Reichstag…Foreign policy would probably be a matter of banging the table. There might be an attempt to rearm. That would automatically add the outside world to the 60 percent of the home population who were against the Government…No, all things considered, this government was not a cause for alarm."

Haffner: " Is it not said that in peacetime the chiefs of staff always prepare their armies as well as possible–for the previous war? I cannot judge the truth of that, but it is certainly true that conscientious parents always educate their sons for the era that is just over."