We all value good advice, but we may be focused on the wrong side of the coin. Our social network feeds are filled with inspirational quotes and comments. At work, our bosses give us appraisals and motivational speeches. At school, our teachers do the same. The truth is, when it comes to all this advice-giving, the adviser may be benefitting more than the advisee.
Before explaining what on Earth I’m talking about, I should be explicit about what I’m not saying. Nobody should think that receiving advice is pointless. Some of our most important life decisions, from our health to our careers, have been influenced by the good advice of friends and mentors. We can get rid of the toughest bad habits when we receive advice from the right people: for example, a doctor’s advice can help us quit smoking.
However, the value of receiving advice does depend on several conditions, especially motivation. When we lack motivation, advice can be useless and potentially even destructive. If we feel as though we are incompetent or over-dependent on others in some way, hearing advice may chip away at our already suffering motivation.
Motivation is linked to several structures in the brain, including emotional learning centers such as the amygdala, reward processing and action planning areas such as the striatum, and areas involved in reinforcing behavior such as the orbitofrontal cortex. Good advice needs to tap into these kinds of networks and give us a motivational boost. Could there be a motivational advantage to giving rather than receiving advice?
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In my personal experience, I have previously suspected that there may be something odd and counterintuitive about giving advice. I enjoy getting advice, but the motivational effects often don’t last particularly long. A strong quote or message from someone I respect might give me a much-needed push, but the inspiration can fizzle out within a couple of days. When somebody needs my advice, I put careful thought into what may help them. If I give them advice that seems to be useful in that moment, I leave with my own unusually positive feeling. I feel inspired to do better myself. I end up working harder when I get to my desk, and I’m more responsive and confident in meetings.
Although I’ve had this personal inkling that offering advice may be as good as receiving advice, I’ve never found any good evidence for it. That’s until a couple of weeks ago when I came across a new scientific publication from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago. Their findings went beyond my inkling. In the right conditions, giving advice is not only as good as receiving advice, it may be significantly better.
The researchers ran three key studies. In the initial experiment, they visited a middle school. They recruited over 300 kids from sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and split them into two groups. The first group read letters from advice-seeking fourth graders, who asked about topics such as how to stay motivated when learning vocabulary. They then wrote a note back to the younger kids offering their best possible advice. Let’s call this first group the advisers. The second group instead read advice from their teacher about learning vocabulary, and wrote a brief response to that advice. Let’s call them the advisees.
Researchers compared motivation and study behaviors between the advice-giving and advice-receiving groups by recording how long students spent on an online vocabulary learning program after the advice. They found that the adviser kids spent significantly more time on the program in the weeks following the guidance they offered. And this is all despite the fact that the teacher’s advice for the advisees was, of course, much better than the comments that the child advisers gave to the fourth graders. So even though the advisees had access to higher quality advice, something about the act of offering advice to others left the advisers with a significant motivational advantage.
On to the second experiment. The researchers wanted to test the same idea among adults instead of children. In an online study, they recruited almost 700 participants, with an average age of 35 years old, to give their best advice to others and to receive advice in return. The advice could focus on one of four possible domains: financial, social, health, or work. Only 34% of people predicted that offering advice would be more motivating than receiving advice. And yet, when the experiment was over, regardless of which domain researchers looked at, approximately 72% of people were more motivated by giving advice.
The final experiment tried to understand why giving advice may be particularly productive. Could it be that giving advice to others instills a sense of confidence within ourselves that boosts our own motivation?
The researchers ran the same experiment above with participants who were overweight. After either giving or receiving health advice, they asked participants how confident they were in their ability to lose weight. This was in addition to their ratings of how motivated they felt following the advice. Replicating the previous results, most participants felt more motivated after giving advice than receiving advice. Interestingly, the same pattern held true for confidence: after giving advice, participants were more confident in their own ability to lose weight.
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Despite our common intuitions, we may be better off giving advice to other people when we lack our own motivation. It’s no use chasing down strangers and shoving our advice at them if they don’t want it. We need to wait for the right opportunity. When it looks as though someone may be seeking a helpful word or two from our own experiences, there is mutual benefit in taking the time to communicate the best possible guidance.
I’ve always been fond of finding and offering the optimal words of encouragement where they might be helpful. But I never quite understood why. It just felt like a fun social puzzle with immediate benefits for the person seeking advice. But now I know that there may be some slightly more selfish advantages too. Giving advice helps us to feel competent, confident, and motivated. For those reasons, as conceited as it sounds, our own humble words of support are often more self-inspiring than the best quotes we will ever read.