Against Advice

Originally published November 1, 2014
You know what this guy needs? Advice, from someone who doesn't know him and genuinely has no clue what his situation is like.—Everyone
I despise unsolicited advice.

It's a win-win for the would-be adviser: either you follow the advice, and whether it works the adviser has gained power over you and gets to say I-told-you-so if it worked, or you ignore it and your situation remains the same and he gets to say your problem persists because you didn't even try the advice so you deserve to suffer.

Every time I try to explain this, people are like, "Advice is for helping out!" No. Read more Robin Hanson:

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credible claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?
It's not just that advice is always unfollowable or followable only by those that don't need it or emotionally manipulative or the exact reverse of the correct advice. The motivation behind it is not generosity and I am sick of hearing otherwise.

All self-help is, "Just do this thing that you'd be able to do if you didn't need to." This is always disguised, sometimes very skillfully, so it is easy to mistake for something potentially helpful. It is then easy to loudly insist that the advice is helpful.

Giving correct advice that people ignore is worth zero points if you're actually trying to help.

Anyway my advice to you is to never give unsolicited advice again, and punish those who do.

1 comment:

  1. http://lesswrong.com/lw/5c0/epistle_to_the_new_york_less_wrongians/3zfp Vladimir_M articulates something else about advice.
    To expand on it a bit, the "pure bias" he mentions is that often the deleterious advice results not just from the different incentives inherent in the advice-giver/advice-receiver relationship, but also in the differing interests of the two parties.