People love to tell you how to live your life, don’t they? There is no shortage of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, businesses, and of course, magazines and websites offering plenty of guidance about what you should or shouldn't do. Others want to tell you what or how you should (or shouldn’t) eat, drink, shop, vote, believe in (or not believe in), dress, exercise—you name it. But while everyone thinks that telling others what they should do will work, very few actually rely on the proven, research-based strategies that actually do typically result in behavior change.
Think about it for a moment: Has there ever been a conversation between a Democrat and a Republican, between a believer and a non-believer, between a meat-eater and a vegetarian, between a Fox News viewer and a MSNBC viewer, or between a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan that ended with one saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ll change right away!”
And honestly, while people encourage you to change your ways to accommodate their suggestions what are you privately thinking? Probably something like “Mind your own business!” or "Why don’t you leave me alone?” You might politely listen but privately most of us resent being told what to do and how to do it.
In a nutshell: Advice giving usually doesn't work, and often completely backfires.
For example, it often makes me laugh when someone knocks on my door to engage in religious proselytizing. I happen to be an engaged Catholic, and my wife is an engaged Jew. Our respective families have been very active participants in our respective religious traditions for centuries. We are happy and comfortable with them, and we learn a lot from each other. And yet, some random stranger knocking on the door thinks that they can change all of that with a brief conversation? Really?
At a recent dinner party, the host (a dear and gracious friend) decided to lecture her guests on a new diet that she was enthusiastic about, which challenges almost everything you likely believe and understand about healthy eating. It also challenges state-of-the-art nutrition science. But she insisted that we all read some popular press book about this diet and then change our lives accordingly. Yeah, right. Of course, no one did as she demanded; all she accomplished was alienating a number of her friends. Probably not what she had planned.
Why Advice Fails
To be fair, we all find ways to tell others how to live. We can’t help it. We all have strong points of view and believe that others should do or think as we do. And most of us are all too comfortable expressing those views to others, whether they're interested or not.
Yet, research using reactance theory informs us that whenever someone tells us what to do and how to do it, we respond with a defensive defiance because we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision making.
So we know that telling others what they should do, even if it is reasonable advice, rarely (if ever) works, though you’d never know this by the endless roster of self-help books and advice gurus out there.
What Does Work?
If we really want to encourage behavior (or belief) change in others we actually need to move away from advice giving (especially when our advice is unsolicited) and toward modeling. In other words, we need to be an example for others rather than telling them what to do.
Research on observational learning (in conjunction with an understanding of reactance theory) suggests that while people will resist unsolicited advice and instruction, they will follow the behaviors of others—especially when there appear to be good and reinforcing outcomes from these behaviors (or beliefs).
Here's a good recent example: One of the most delightful families I met at my son's high school are evangelical Christians. But I had no clue what their religious affiliation was for about 3 years, after spending lots of time with them at track meets and other events. They modeled friendliness, graciousness, and caring better than anyone else I knew at this large public high school. Only during a casual conversation at one of our children's last track meets did I even have any idea of their beliefs and traditions. They modeled wonderful and appealing behaviors without a word and set an excellent example for others—very different than the folks knocking on the door telling you what you should do and believe.
If you really want to encourage behavior change in those around you, model the behavior that you want and keep your advice-giving instincts in check. I know—I'm giving advice here, and perhaps contradicting myself, but still, just consider this strategy and see how it works out for you.
Copyright Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP