Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

To Take People’s Advice, Take Their Perspective Too

It is hard to overcome your own biases when taking advice.

You may have noticed that there are two kinds of advice-giving situations.  Sometimes, people come to you for advice, because they really don’t know what to do, and they are asking for your opinion or expertise.  I get a lot of students who come to my office curious about classes that I would suggest that they take given their interests in Psychology.  They don’t know what to take, and they want suggestions to consider.

 Other times, though, people already have an opinion.  In those cases, it feels like your advice has little effect on them unless you happen to agree with the opinion they already had.  I have had students come to me asking my opinion about research projects they are considering.  Often, I feel like they are going to go ahead with that project regardless of what I suggest.

 A number of studies have demonstrated that when people have an initial opinion, they are likely to stick with that opinion rather than taking advice, even when it is likely that the advice would lead them to a better decision.

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 The real question is how you can get people to pay more attention to the advice they receive?  That issue was explored in a paper by Ilan Yaniv and Shoham Choshen-Hillel in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  These authors suggested that people who have their own opinion are more likely to take into account advice they get when they are asked to take another person’s perspective rather than their own. 

 In one study, people were asked to make a series of estimates like the number of calories in a baked potato.  After making their estimate, people were shown the estimates made by five other people that were drawn randomly from a sample of estimates made from 100 other individuals.  Next, they were asked to make another estimate based on this advice.  Half of the people were asked what their estimate was given this advice.  The other half were told that another person would be shown the five estimates plus their own and would be asked to guess the true value.

 The group that was asked what their own estimate would be after seeing the advice kept their initial estimate 50% of the time.  The group that was asked to make an estimate for another person kept their initial estimate only 17% of the time.  In addition, the group that made an estimate for themselves was further from the true value than the group that made an estimate for someone else. 

 People who were making an estimate for themselves felt more confident that they were correct initially, and so they gave too much weight to their own estimate relative to those made by other people. 

 Of course, just taking someone else’s perspective wasn’t quite enough to completely correct for this bias.  In another study, after making the estimate for another person, people were asked what their own estimate was after seeing the advice.  In this case, people still tended to stick with their original estimate. 

 That means that even after making an estimate for someone else that used all of the information about equally, people still wanted to place too much emphasis on their own initial guess.

 In order to help yourself take advice, then, you really need to try to take someone else’s perspective when making a decision.  You have to realize that you are going to have a bias to stick with your own initial opinion.  Rather than looking for advice that agrees with what you already hope to do, try to imaging the situation from the standpoint of someone else. 

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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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