Freedom to Learn

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Unsolicited Advice: I Hate It, You Hate It; so Do Your Kids

Why do we especially dislike unsolicited advice from loved ones?

"Have a nice day," said the mom to her teenage daughter; to which the daughter replied, "Motherrrr, will you pulleeeeze stop telling me what to do!" I empathize with both parties in this old joke. Sometimes we get so overrun by unsolicited advice that even the most innocuous, benevolent advice becomes intolerable.

My wife and I have a wonderful marriage. One cause of our bliss is that we have both learned to avoid giving the other person unwanted advice. I remember one early step in that learning process for me. We were coming home from a movie, and my wife was driving. I noticed that she was keeping the car in second gear when she clearly should have shifted to third, maybe even to fourth. Stupidly, I told her so. She didn't say anything, but her curt manner of shifting and the silence I heard for the next few minutes spoke volumes. It said, among other things: "Look, buddy, I've been driving for years; I don't need you to micromanage my driving. Did you really have to interrupt our conversation about the movie, right now, to tell me how to drive!" All that, just from my polite, "Sweetie, I think you should be in a higher gear here; you'd get better gas mileage that way and it would be easier on the engine." I had to admit, as I thought about it, that if she had given similar advice to me, my unspoken reaction would have been about the same.

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My wife and I are not the only people who generally dislike unsolicited advice. As part of my preparation to write this essay, I Googled "unsolicited advice" and found an Internet poll with this question: Do you generally like unsolicited advice? followed by three response choices: Yes, No, and Only if the right person gives it. When I last checked the poll, 847 people had responded, with 6% saying "Yes" (all of whom, I assume, came from another planet), 56% saying "No," and 38% saying, "Only if the right person gives it." Personally, I don't think it's just a matter of the right person; it's also a matter of the right time and the right way. Advice from friends, lovers, relatives, bosses, subordinates, experts, novices, and strangers can all be equally odious, depending on when it is given and how.

Sometimes, of course, unsolicited advice is welcome. If I'm stepping into the ocean and someone, anyone, comes over and advises me not to swim there because sharks were spotted there a few minutes age, I'm grateful. I hear this not so much as advice as useful, potentially life-saving information, which I didn't know before. I'd feel even more grateful, though, without even the slightest tinge of annoyance, if the Good Samaritan had entirely omitted the advice part of the message (to not swim there) and just given me the information part (about the sharks). Then I'd feel that a decision to stay out of the water was entirely my own, based on my own capacity to think rationally, and was not in any way coerced. I wouldn't, then, have even the slightest temptation to continue into the water just to prove that "I'll do whatever I blankety blank well choose to do, thank you!

Why do we react this way to unsolicited advice? Why don't we just accept it for what it often is--the other person's genuine concern and desire to help? Others who have written on this question have suggested a number of reasonable answers. They suggest that the advice, justifiably or not, comes across to us as one-upmanship, or assertion of dominance, or criticism, or distrust, or failure to consider our own unique goals and priorities. I agree with all that, but I would add that the main, underlying answer has to do with our desire to protect our own freedom. In fact, I'm using this (and the next) essay on advice to segue into a planned series of essays on the psychology of freedom.

For good evolutionary reasons, to be discussed in a future essay, we human beings naturally crave freedom. We resist control from other people. We do this regardless of our age and regardless of whom it is who wants to control us. Married people resist control from their spouses; old people resist control from their middle-aged children; children of all ages resist control from their parents. And, of course, students resist control from their teachers, which is one reason why schools as we generally know them produce such poor results.

Unsolicited advice from loved ones can be especially threatening, because of our strong desire to please those persons. It's hard to ignore advice from loved ones, because we implicitly fear that failure to follow it will signal lack of love or respect. At the same time, we don't want to follow the advice, because we want to retain our autonomy. In fact, we especially don't want to follow the advice of a loved one because, each time we do so, it feels like a step toward changing the relationship from one between equals to one of unbalanced power. By complying, we may be signaling our future willingness to subordinate ourselves to the other person's will. "Yes, my dear, you are much smarter and more knowledgeable than I, so I'll always do as you say." Every act of compliance seems to tighten an imagined noose that the other has around our neck. The conflict between complying (to show our love) and not complying (to assert our freedom) creates frustration, and frustration leads to anger. And so, we feel more anger when a loved one tells us how to improve our driving--or our health, or whatever--than we do when a perfect stranger gives us such advice.

It's easier for most people to understand the nature of this conflict when thinking about husband and wife than when thinking about parent and young child. The parent and  child are in some ways obviously unequal. The parent is bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable about many aspects of the world, and has control of more resources. But yet, in another sense, the parent and child are equals. They are equally valuable as individuals. They are equally privy to their own strongly felt drives, needs, and goals. And children, although in many ways not as knowledgeable as adults, are a lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. Children recognize their dependence on adults, but at the same time experience a powerful drive to assert their independence. From an evolutionary perspective, this drive is no accident; it is what motivates children always toward taking those risks that they must take to grow up, to find their own paths, to take charge of their own lives.

And so, my unsolicited New Year's advice to you is that you should be as cautious about giving unsolicited advice to your children as you are about giving it to your spouse. The more you refrain from giving unsolicited advice, the more likely it will be that your children will ask you for advice when they need it and will follow that advice if it is reasonable. I'll give some examples and evidence for this in my next essay.

But now, I'd love to hear from you about unsolicited advice, in the comments section below. Under what conditions do you appreciate or not appreciate advice? How have your relationships, of all types, been affected by the tendency of either you or the other person to give unsoliced advice? Your experiences may well be helpful to other readers, and to me.
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See new book, Free to Learn 

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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