The Paradox of Advice

A long post by Ben Casnocha tells how to give advice. The subject fascinates me because I’ve noticed what a strong tendency I have to give advice when told of this or that problem — yet I also realize that advice giving is usually obnoxious. I think this is why Ben’s post is long: It’s a difficult problem, like an addiction: The bad consequences are hard to avoid. Why do I have this tendency? No obvious reason. It certainly isn’t learned or copied or sustained by reward. Why is it obnoxious? Again, there’s no obvious reason. Giving advice has good and bad aspects: trying to be helpful (good) and acting superior and ignorant (bad). Why the bad seems to predominate I have no idea.

This is one reason I think Jane Jacobs’s you can only change what you love is usually true: because in your communication with someone you love (or at least respect) there will be enough positive in the whole message to overcome the negative of the advice itself — so that the advice doesn’t push the person away. (Another reason I think she’s right is that to give good advice you usually need to know a lot about the person you are advising.)

12 Replies to “The Paradox of Advice”

  1. Giving advice confers higher status on the advice giver, and reduces status for the advice taker. This is what makes it so hard to take 🙂 (And pleasant to give.)

    This is a large part of the job satisfaction of being a doctor/minister — you are acknowledged to be an advice-giver, and earn much status in that role.

    I think one thing that helps both sides is a strong foundation of mutual respect, so that the acceptance of advice doesn’t materially change the status balance; another way to do this is to trade advice, accept advice that you don’t (think you) need in order to give advice that (you think) will materially help someone.

    A knotty problem 🙂

  2. i’ve heard from a psychologist that you can’t really change people, which is interesting, though i’m not sure exactly how to take it. i’ve also heard it said you can’t really change people’s minds with an argument which is similar to advice-giving. that seems true to me, since i can’t think of a time i really changed anyone’s mind with an argument. on the other hand, maybe i am not noticing, since i can think of arguments that have changed my mind, and perhaps it’s not obvious my mind was changed by the people who persuaded me, since i don’t like to linger on my own errors 🙂

  3. I liked the “strut” update to Robin’s post.

    My dog struts after she has an encounter with a submissive dog, it is really funny to see. All of her 15 pounds of white fluff, strutting down the street.

  4. A lot of people are giving advice. Peter Kollock (Univ. of California, L.A.) has researched motivations for contributing to online communities.
    He lists as egoistic motivators:
    • anticipated reciprocity
    • reputation (bragging rights)
    • sense of efficacy

    •And as altruistic motivators:
    • help someone who has a need
    • attachment to a community

    Seth, I see your own motivators for the advice you give in the SLD forums as purly altruistic, and I don’t sense any “strutting”, either.

    This wikipedia piece on motivators is also interesting

  5. “Give a stone before advice.” My dad was a fan of this poem on advise “A GARLAND OF PRECEPTS” by Phyllis McGinley

    But, I’d advise fixing the Jane Jacobs link.

    There is an ironic tension in the Jacobs quote. In particular, she had little love for urban planners. They didn’t love cities, but she yearned to change them.

  6. In response to Mike Kenny’s response, when I do take someone else’s advice, it is usually after their argument is over and they are long gone. This way I save face (i.e., status) by appearing not to take their advice, but get the benefits of their potential wisdom. I guess this happens a lot, otherwise advice would never do any good.

  7. my take on giving advice is that our bodies probably reward us in some hormonal/chemical way. For example, chimps in the wild who dominate have higher levels of testosterone. giving advice is, in a manner of speaking, dominating or being in a superior position and probably leads to enhanced and perhaps pleasurable hormonal/chemical releases. dominating results in greater likelihood of survival and it makes sense that we are reward in a many ways, including hormonally/chemically.
    I recall that a neighbor knocked on my door to give me my key, which i left hanging from my mail box. rather than simply hand them to me and say something like “here you left these in the mail box” he looked excited and exhilarated and recounted the experience in detail (i.e., “i walked up to the mail box a notice” etc…) as if it were a thrilling adventure. relative to his life this was domination and he obviously got a thrill out of pointing out a mistake.

  8. Here’s another piece of evidence that fits with the idea that giving-taking advice raises-lowers the status of the giver-taker, respectively. When my wife and I were first dating, and she knew I was a college professor trained in the behavioral and neural sciences, she would listen to my advice about certain topics. But we are married and with a 2 year old girl. I’m still an expert in the behavioral sciences, but she won’t take my advice about how to help train our daughter (as all little kids need lots of constant training!). I that since my wife obviously doesn’t want to feel inferior to me, she often won’t listen to my advice, no matter how helpful and kindly it is given. I could tell my wife something that I know from the medical community that will help her (e.g., take omega 3 supplements every day, especially while pregnant) but she won’t listen to me. But if her prenatal doctor tells her that that is a great idea, she WILL listen to her. No worries about loosing status to the doctor, the doctor is supposed to have more status than the patient. But the wife is not supposed to have more status than the husband (at least not in our relationship). Maybe I should switch tactics and tell her stories instead of giving advice or offering helpful tips (the latter sounds more benign, doesn’t it). Something like “I saw a prenatal doctor give a talk on campus and she had a whole discussion about how most pregnant women don’t get enough omega 3 fatty acids. This can lead to all kinds of problems for the developing fetus, such as …” Sure, it’s a fictional tale, but maybe she will listen to the ideas in the story to heart. After all, I wasn’t offering advice, I was telling a story!

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