Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What is the best way to give advice?

New research examines the best way to give people advice.

AdviceA lot of our daily conversations involve giving and getting advice. You talk about new movies, and a friend recommends that you go see it. Another friend wants to go to a Tex-Mex restaurant, and you recommend that they avoid one that just opened. Later, you mention that you are thinking about joining a new gym, and a friend points out that a new gym nearby offers free personal trainers some afternoons.

Are these kinds of advice effective? Do people use the advice they get?

A paper by Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio in a 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes looked at several different kinds of advice that people get and give to understand how likely people are to use them. They distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.

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Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation. (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews. You aren't recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision. Some participants considered a choice of a job after graduate school. Others selected among candidates for officers in a student group. They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and asked how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision.

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree. However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies. That is, people found it most helpful when people told them about aspects of the options that they might not have known about already.

Advice and supportThere are a few reasons why information is more valuable to people than other kinds of advice. For one thing, when someone makes a recommendation for or against a particular option, a decision maker may feel like they have lost a bit of their independence in making a choice. Recommendations about how to go about making the choice may also make a decision maker feel a loss of independence. When the advice comes in the form of information, though, the decision maker still feels like they have some autonomy.

Second, information helps people to make future decisions in the same domain. New pieces of information often make people aware of dimensions of a decision that they had never considered before. A recommendation for or against a particular option is useful for the specific decision that you are making at a given time, but that advice may not be as helpful in the future.

Finally, getting information makes people feel more confident in the decision they ultimately make. The information provides reasons for or against a particular option. There is a lot of evidence that people feel better about decisions when they are able to give a reason for making the choice. Information provides a good justification for a choice.

So, if you want my advice, give people information when making a recommendation.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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