It is graduation season, and I am surrounded by advice. A few weeks ago, I was honored to give the commencement address for the Psychology Department here at the University of Texas. This week, two of my kids are graduating from high school, and each ceremony has had speakers dispensing their own wisdom

The advice given at commencement addresses is always idealistic. Follow your dreams. Exercise your artistic side. Encourage people around you to excel. I suppose if it were easy to follow these ideals, it wouldn’t be necessary to give graduation speeches about them. But it is fascinating that the advice people are most prone to give is different from the actions that people typically take.

Why is that?

An interesting paper in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Shai Danziger, Ronit Montal and Rachel Barkan suggests that advice givers and advice takers differ in how abstractly they think about situations. They follow research by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues on construal level theory, which argues that when people are mentally nearer to situations they think about them more specifically than when they are mentally further away.

There are lots of ways to be mentally close or far away from something. Events feel nearer when they are close in time (later today) than when they are further away in time (six months from now). They are mentally nearer when they are happening physically close by (in the same town) than when they are physically far away (across the country). Importantly for advice-givers, events are also mentally nearer when they are happening to you than when they are happening to someone else. 

People giving advice are making suggestions for other people. So, advice givers will think about a situation more abstractly than advice takers. Because ideals are generally abstract concepts that people are trying to live up to, those ideals are more likely to make an appearance in advice than they are to play a role in actual choices.

In one study, for example, college students read about a situation in which volunteers were needed to work at least three hours a week to help collect and distribute food to the needy, even though that time would take away from their time to study for school. Participants were either placed in the role of advisers, where they had to make a recommendation to someone else about what to do or as choosers, where they had to select for themselves what to do. People advising recommended that others volunteer, while those choosing tended not to volunteer.  

Just before making this judgment, participants rated whether they generally care more about why people perform actions or how they perform them. Previous research suggests that people focus more on why people perform actions when they are thinking abstractly and more on how they perform them when they are thinking specifically. The advice givers rated that they cared more about why people perform actions, while the choosers rated that they cared more about how people perform actions.

In another study, people read about a scenario in which someone with an undergraduate degree in biology has to choose between following their dream to go to medical school or taking a job at pharmaceutical research company that pays very well and has opportunities for advancement.  Some people gave advice to others, while others chose for themselves. Consistent with the first study, those giving advice recommended medical school 69 percent of the time, while those choosing for themselves chose medical school only 43 percent of the time.

Two other groups of advisers were run in this study. One group was primed to think abstractly by answering four questions about why people should engage in healthy behaviors. Another group was primed to think concretely by answering for questions about how they would go about engaging in these healthy behaviors. Previous work shows that thinking about the details of how to accomplish an action puts people in a mindset to think more specifically than those who think broadly about why to perform an action. When people were primed to think specifically before giving advice, they recommended medical school only 45 percent of the time, but when they were primed to think abstractly before giving advice they recommended medical school 68 percent of the time. 

Putting this together, giving advice puts people in a mindset to think abstractly about situations. As a result, advice tends to focus on ideal courses of action. When people are actually in a situation, though, they tend to focus on the details, and so they often carry out actions that are easy to perform, even if those actions don’t live up to the ideals.

What is the right thing to do?

The most important thing that people need to do is to be aware of the effect of mental distance on their actions. Periodically in our lives, it is important to take a step back from our day-to-day actions and to think abstractly about whether we are living up to our own ideals. Otherwise, we run the risk of doing a lot and accomplishing little of value.

At the same time, there is a danger with being focused too strongly on ideals. It is virtually impossible to live up to our own high standards all the time. As the saying goes, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” That is, at some point it is important to ensure that we get things done, even if the results are not exactly what we hoped for.

To strike the right balance between our ideals and our need to get things completed, it is important both to think about the events of our lives from close up and from far away.

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