It shouldn’t come as too much of a revelation. We are better at giving advice than at taking it. To be more precise, we are not very good at taking our own advice. Of course, this assumes that the advice we give to ourselves is as good as the advice we give to other people.
Yet, Melissa Dahl’s New York Magazine column about giving and taking advice does not address the question of whether we are better at taking advice that others give us than we are at taking our own advice.
And that is not the only level of complexity here. When we give someone advice, our remarks exist within a conversation and within a constituted social connection. When we give ourselves advice, we are often thinking to ourselves. Self-advice does not count as a verbal act and it does not constitute a commitment.
To make the comparison more germane, the researchers should have considered the difference between the advice we give to others and the advice we tell others that we are going to follow.
If I tell my friends that I am going to stop smoking and if they see me smoking, I will lose face. If I tell myself that I should stop smoking and I keep on smoking I will compromise my health but I do not lose face.
But then, if I advise a friend against smoking, I am saying that I am willing to take responsibility for what happens when he follows my advice. If I give advice and my friend follows it and it turns out badly, I will be held accountable. Evidently, this rule does not apply to stopping smoking.
Supposedly, we give the best advice when we are objective observers of a situation. If a friend asks us what he should do in this or that circumstance, we often know the answer. If we find ourselves in the same situation, we might think about the same solution, but we are unlikely to follow the same piece of advice.
Apparently, we do not trust ourselves to give ourselves good advice. The example, as given, does not consider what we do when someone else, an objective observer, or perhaps even a friend, offers similar advice.
Note well, the advice has a different value if comes from a friend or from a random stranger. We are surely more likely to follow the advice of a friend than that of a stranger. And we are most willing to follow advice if the person giving it is a recognized authority.
It’s not just about objectivity. Some people know more than others. Some people have more experience than others. Some people are smarter or wiser than others.
Psychologists suggest that we do not often take our own advice because we are too emotionally involved. Or else, we might distrust our advice because we know that we are not being objective about it.
Of course, reality is often far more complicated than questions posed to college students.
Take this example, from Dan Ariely, reported by Dahl:
Ariely tells me about an experiment he once did that neatly proves his point. “Think about something like getting a second opinion from doctors,” Ariely said. Imagine, Ariely asked his study participants, that your regular doctor has given you some serious diagnosis. Would you ask for a referral so you can get a second opinion? Most people, he found, say no — they don’t want to offend their doctor, even if the health stakes at hand are high. “But if we ask them if they would tell somebody else to go for a second opinion, they say, Of course, yes,” Ariely continued, adding that the insight is applicable in a wide range of situations.
This feels like a trick question, so one must question the way it has been reported. Asking your own doctor for a referral for a second opinion is not the same as recommending that someone else seek out a second opinion.
Obviously, you can seek out a second opinion without asking your own doctor for a referral. When you tell someone else to seek out a second opinion, you are not necessarily telling him to ask his own physician for a referral.
Why would you not ask your own doctor for a referral? Perhaps you do not want to offend someone who might literally have your life in his hands. This is not irrational.
Also, you might question whether anyone chosen by your doctor can be truly objective. Perhaps, the other doctor will be a colleague or friend of your doctor. If so, he might be less inclined to offer an objective opinion because of the risk to a friendship or a referral source.
At the least, we see that these situations are often far more complex than we imagine and that the subjective/objective division does not suffice.
Let’s examine another of Dahl’s examples:
You definitely should just confront your friend about how much it annoys and hurts you that she has a habit of canceling plans at the last minute; I, on the other hand, have known my own flaky friend for far too long to bring it up at this point. It’s complicated. Don’t worry about it.
Here she is suggesting that advice given in the abstract, advice that articulates a general principle might not be applicable in a specific situation. Most of us know a certain number of moral principles. Applying them in specific situations with different people is not as easy as it seems.
In this case, another problem lays in the principle of confrontation. It is wrong to believe that you need to choose between confronting and saying nothing. If that is the choice, many people, who reasonably want to avoid giving offense, will do nothing. It’s like advising women to “lean in” and then being surprised to see that the women who receive this advice are less likely to lean in or are more likely to lean in at the wrong time, in the wrong place with the wrong person.
Is it so obvious that people normally follow the advice they receive from their peers? Your close personal friends do have an objective perspective. In general, however, they probably do not know any more than you do. Following a friend’s advice might feel like following your own advice. True, it’s objective… but it is not based on wisdom or experience. It’s like the blind leading the blind.
And then, Dahl continues, we commit what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error:
It’s a consequence of something psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, the idea that people explain their own actions by the circumstances, but judge others’ behavior as clear signals of their glaring character flaws. “So if I trip on the sidewalk, it must’ve been uneven,” Hershfield said. “But if you trip, you’re clumsy.”You need to follow this writing advice because you’re a beginner; I, Professional Writer, am above it, and that lede wasn’t coming to me because … because I just needed caffeine, or something.
Dahl had offered the example of a friend who asked her for advice about how to overcome writers’ block. She responded that the friend should not worry about having a great opening paragraph. She should just start writing.
Is this good advice? Effectively, it is. The only way overcome writers’ block is to write. The more you think about it, the more you think about what you are going to write, the less you will get down on the page or the screen.
The amateur who has writers’ block does not know the basic rule and therefore is not following it. The professional, like Dahl, knows the rule but might not believe that the rule applies to her... she is a professional. When she has writers’ block, the reason must lie elsewhere.
Of course, it might also be the case that she is a young writer and has not yet fully developed the habit of sitting down and writing even when she does not know what she is going to say.
Intriguingly, Dahl then offers a quotation by William James:
Famed 19th-century psychologist William James, for instance, spent much of his career harping on the subject of habits: The key to a happy, productive life, he often argued, was to automate as much of it as possible. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation,” James wrote in his book Psychology: A Briefer Course.
Is this good advice? Yes, it’s very good advice.
And yet, it gets critiqued by authors like Mason Currey:
But, as Mason Currey points out in his (delightful) 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, James might as well have been describing himself — all his life, the psychologist struggled to stick to a regular schedule, according to his biographer.
Perhaps James did not fully succeed in living his life according to strict rituals and habits. Few people succeed fully at anything. Yet, James was not ignoring the advice. He was trying to live according to the principle.
Besides, the notion was certainly not unique to William James. The concept of "habit" goes back to Aristotle, and the theory of learning to do the right thing without thinking is intrinsic to military training. In another context, it's called resilience.