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.
"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.