• Modern advice columnists answer questions about sex, relationships, work, mental health, and existence itself. 
  • Your probability of taking someone’s advice is determined by a number of cognitive and social factors, like their reputation and your emotions.
  • People–especially people with low motivation–frequently just need a listener, not an advice-giver. 
  • We can all help each other by sharing information, but when it comes to deeper personal matters, therapy steers people toward greater wisdom. 

Last week the Twitter user @KingBraize asked the World Wide Web for advice on how to talk to his two teen daughters about boys. He Tweeted (paraphrasing), “Ladies, what are some things you wished your dads had said to y’all during these stages, like first love/first heartbreak, etc. I don’t wanna lose my best friends by saying the wrong things. Help please.” The earnest Tweet went viral as thousands of people rushed to answer King Braize’s question:

“Teach them NO is a complete sentence,” wrote @lionessvibes. “No negotiating, no it might hurt his feelings, it’s just NO. Let them know their peace is worth more than any boy/man. Loving themselves and being comfortable in their own skin is their first priority.” 

“Yes,” wrote @yes__ifill, “and prepare them for a negative reaction to their no. Anything from guilt trips, begging, manipulation, and flat-out violence. The last thing you want is to tell them no is a full sentence and have them unprepared for the possible response. Work through how to handle each.”

The whole thread was an uplifting study in crowd-sourced counseling, and as a former reader of syndicated newspaper columns like “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers”, it made me wonder if actual advice columns are a thing of the past, absorbed by social media. But no, a little Googling revealed that they’re still going strong. 

Have a complex, sensitive, desperate question about life that you’d like answered anonymously? You can find a reputable listener on the Internet. Five different writers have penned “Dear Prudence” at Slate. “Dear Sugar” helped launch the literary career of its bestselling author Cheryl Strayed. “Ask Polly”, Heather Havrilesky’s advice column at New York magazine, recently moved to Substack after being archived in book form. Captain Awkward, Carolyn Hax, Daniel M. Lavery (formerly Mallory Ortberg), E. Jean Carroll, and Dan Savage are all household names in the Q&A advice world. 

These popular writers dispense their wisdom boldly, irreverently, and compassionately, in voice-driven prose infused with fashionable self-awareness and individuality. Letter writers and readers seem to connect as much to the authors’ tone and personal stories as to their values. The columns are super entertaining, but is anyone actually taking their advice? 

The Psychology of Advice Seeking and Advice Taking

Advice comes in many flavors: relationship advice, existential advice, and moral advice. There’s advice on etiquette, parenting, business, and life in general. People often feel compelled to seek information and guidance from each other before they make weighty decisions. The wisdom of the crowd can save you time, trouble, and costly mistakes. When you’re uncertain what to do, you turn to a trustworthy source for help. But do you take or reject their advice? 

It depends on both the person asking and the person advising. Advice might be a decision-making shortcut, but it can also add interpersonal complications. The following social and cognitive elements can come into play when someone uses another person to increase their knowledge:

  • We tend to think we know better than other people, partly because we have access to our own internal reasoning, and partly because we tend to undervalue the opinion of others. This is called egocentric discounting. We also tend to anchor our initial judgment, sticking to our first instinct. So if an advice-giver’s opinion differs from your own, you’re more likely to discount the other person’s. If the advice-giver has a solid reputation (as your favorite columnist might), then you’ll give their opinion more weight. But one piece of bad advice can erode an advice-giver’s reputation more than multiple pieces of great wisdom, due to our negativity bias. 
  • People don’t give others the same type of advice they’d give themselves. For example, you’re more likely to tell someone else that they should make pleasurable choices, like “Spend the money on a cruise!”, and tell yourself that you should make practical choices, like “Spend the money on a new water heater!” You also tend to be more risk-averse when it comes to your own relationship decisions than when advising others. This dynamic means that you’re more likely to advise a friend to “Just break up with him!” than you are to apply that same advice to your own iffy romantic relationship. 
  • Emotions can affect how receptive you are to advice. For example, feelings of gratitude make it more likely that you’ll take the advice, and feeling of anger make it less likely. 
  • Some people think that other people will perceive them as incompetent if they ask for advice, but the opposite is actually true. Studies show that people tend to think more highly of someone’s capabilities when they reach out for guidance. 
  • If the advice was costly to attain, you’re more likely to take it. So if you’ve tried for years to get a response from your favorite advice columnist, then you wake up one day to find your question published online, you’ll probably follow the advice like it’s a judge’s sentence.  
  • Advice might actually benefit the advice-giver more than the advice-taker. Psychological studies show that telling other people what to do can be both motivating and empowering. So if you’re feeling unmotivated, share your life wisdom and see what transpires. 
  • Which brings us to unsolicited advice. If you’re not motivated in the first place, getting unsolicited advice can make you feel incompetent. Advice is most useful when you need information and different perspectives, not when you lack drive. For example, if you’re not motivated to save money and someone gives you excellent advice on how to adhere to a household budget, their good intentions are probably going to backfire. Plus, people often give unsolicited advice for the wrong reasons: because they identify as problem-solvers or because they want to force intimacy. 

The great thing about asking for advice is that it’s not binding. No matter what a syndicated “agony aunt” says, you still retain the autonomy to make your own decisions. And maybe you’d be better off advising yourself anyway. For example, studies show that people tend to make wiser choices when they reflect on their life in the third-person. So instead of keeping a daily diary that says, “I did this because…,” you keep a daily diary that says, “He/she/they did this because…” This kind of distancing from one’s narrow, subjective focus supposedly enhances reasoning skills. 

Some Final Advice on Advice

Even though you didn’t ask me for my opinion, this whole exercise has made me feel very smart and powerful, so thanks for giving me this platform to offer unsolicited advice. The next time you face a romantic or existential quandary, just ask yourself WWTWD? (What Would Thriveworks Do?). If you’re not sure, read every inch of our exceptional blog. 

Real talk: If you truly want to help someone who asks you for advice, experts recommend that you listen closely before you respond. The advice-seeker may just need to think through the problem aloud. You should also encourage and compliment the person, and try to understand before you judge. Empower the advice-seeker to do their own problem-solving by asking them about their ideas. (After all, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your advice is if the other person isn’t going to take it.) The most popular advice columnists are supportive and uplifting. For example, the writer of Substack’s “Dear Baby” aims to make readers feel that “they’ve just had a long talk with a friend”. And always give people explicit permission to reject your advice. (I can’t be the only one who’s avoided someone for years because I didn’t comply with their suggestions.) 

If you need advice, remember that the Internet probably can’t give you definitive answers about raising your daughters or breaking up with your boyfriend. We all live in uncertain, idiosyncratic worlds that we just need to lean into sometimes. And also keep in mind that even the finest advice columnists on Earth only choose the specific questions they feel qualified to answer or that pique their own interest. They don’t have all the answers–just a select few. So it’s very possible that an online moral influencer won’t be able to prescribe an effective course of action based on your email. 

Besides, you may just need someone to talk to. Someone who’s compassionate and warm and nonjudgmental and attentive and insightful and supportive of mindful self-reflection. Someone who… sounds a lot like a qualified therapist

But feel free to disregard this advice. You’re doing the best you can, and you’re the author of your own life no matter what I–or anyone else–tells you to do. 

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