Sometimes We Should Ignore Advice: Even People Who Give Us Advice Think So
You probably assume that if someone gives you advice, they want you to follow it completely. After all, they have invested time and effort into coming up with the advice and giving it to you. But our research suggests that this is not always true. In fact, advisors are more like Goldilocks—they want their advice to be used “just right”—not too little and not too much.
In thinking about how to use someone’s advice, one important consideration is how confident the advisor is about his or her advice. If advisors care about you getting good results—and we think they often do—then they may want you to rely on your own judgment as well as theirs, especially when they are not sure about the quality of the advice they gave you.
To investigate this possibility, we asked people to answer a series of trivia-style questions, such as questions about the distances between cities or the calories in foods. Everyone got advice from another participant—an “advisor”—who suggested the answer based on their own knowledge. Then, we asked advisors how much they wanted their advice to be used and compared their response to how much people actually used the advice. This gave us a measure of whether people used the advice more or less than their advisors wanted.
The results depended on the difficulty of the questions. For easy questions, people tended to use the advice less than their advisors wanted them to. But, for hard questions, people tended to use the advice more than their advisors wanted them to. For example, on average, advisors wanted people to adjust their opinion only about the quarter of the way towards their advice for hard questions, but instead people adjusted halfway toward the advisor’s advice.
Interestingly, advisors were not pleased when their advice was used more than they wanted. We assessed advisors’ displeasure by asking them how willing they would be to give advice to the same person again in the future. Advisors were less willing to give advice to people who they thought had used their advice too much. Not surprisingly, advisors were also not pleased when their advice was used less than they wanted.
We think that advisors reacted negatively to people using their advice too much for at least two reasons. First, advisors might think that people who used their advice too much gave less accurate answers, thwarting advisors’ goal of helping improve accuracy. This is consistent with the finding that advisors did not want to be listened to as much on difficult questions. Second, advisors might feel like they would be held responsible for the person’s judgment or decision. In other words, they might have felt that if people did exactly what they said, then they would be responsible for failure.
What this means is that you can please someone who gives you advice only by using their advice just the right amount. This is especially likely when the decision is difficult. Displeasing your advisors is especially detrimental when you want a sustained and positive relationship with them, for example because they are friends, family members, colleagues, or superiors. In these cases, you should take into account your advisor’s certainty, or better yet, straight up ask them how much they want you to use their advice.
For Further Reading
Ache, F., Rader, C. A., & Hütter, M. (2020). Advisors want their advice to be used – but not too much: An interpersonal perspective on advice taking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 89, 103979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103979
Fabian Ache is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Media Psychology at the University of Hagen. He studies advice seeking and taking, the wisdom of crowds, and social influence.
Christina A. Rader is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Colorado College. Her research focuses on judgment and decision making, especially as it relates to giving and taking advice.
Mandy Hütter is a Professor of Social Cognition and Decision Science at the University of Tübingen. She studies the cognitive processes underlying attitudes, learning, judgments, and decisions.