Personal Growth

When It Comes to Self-Improvement, Giving Advice Is Better Than Getting It

Confession time: We love advice columns. You get all the entertainment of watching someone else's drama without any of the personal attachment. Plus, you get to judge all those strangers — there's literally no downside! Okay, so maybe we're not the best people to go to for advice. But maybe we should work on that. As it turns out, people who give advice tend to benefit a lot more from that advice than the people they're advising.

Related: Good Advice from Mark Twain

Your Two Cents

When you're struggling with a big problem, your first instinct is probably to seek input from somebody else — ideally someone who's been through something similar. But according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, giving advice is actually a lot more effective than receiving it. The researchers devised a series of experiments to see how adolescents interacted with each other and with their teachers.

In the first experiment, the researchers randomly assigned the teens and preteens the roles of advice giver and advice receiver. Advice givers, or advisers, got the chance to reply to a letter written by a fourth-grader struggling with a vocabulary lesson, although each adviser was responding to the same letter. Those in the advisee group, by contrast, were each given a letter written by a teacher on the same subject — again, each student was shown the same letter, with the same, generically positive advice (an excerpt: "Don't settle. Always try to make things better and better. You need to put in your full effort, not just coast by! Sometimes that means putting in a lot of time after the school day ends, like studying vocabulary online."). 

In the following four weeks, the students were given access to an online vocabulary program, and the researchers secretly tracked the amount of time they spent working on their vocab in their own time. Sure enough, the adviser groups spent more than seven minutes more per session on their vocab, while the advisees only improved their study time by three minutes and change.

All-Ages Advice

Other experiments showed similar results for people from a wider range of ages and in fields other than academic achievement — financial, interpersonal, health, and work. In these cases, participants self-reported their feelings of motivation rather than being tracked, but the difference between advisers and advisees was still clear. Significantly, the participants were also asked about which would be more likely to increase a person's motivation, and in general, they misjudged the answer. People think getting advice is more motivating, but in reality, giving advice is what lights your fire.

The fourth experiment, however, shined a light on what the crucial difference might really be: confidence. Similar to previous experiments, participants were randomly assigned the tasks of giving or getting financial, social, health, or professional advice, and quizzed about their emotional states regarding these fields. But instead of being asked about their motivation, they were asked about their confidence — and whether they would predict that getting or giving advice would raise their confidence more. Not only was giving advice more confidence-boosting, but people correctly predicted that it would be. So the next time you're feeling uncertain about what to do, try imagining another person in the same situation as you, and what advice you'd give them to make it through. You might just find that your confidence improves accordingly.

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Then again, sometimes you really do want to hear from someone who has been through it all. Check out "If I Could Tell You Just One Thing" and absorb the wisdom of luminaries like Harry Belafonte, Stephen Fry, Dame Judi Dench, Annie Lennox, the Dalai Lama, and Sir David Attenborough. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 26, 2018

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