Is Advice Better to Give than to Receive?
When facing a challenge, it may be more motivating to give someone else advice.
Posted Nov 04, 2019
When I arrived as a freshman at Albion College in the summer of ‘02, I remember being inundated with advice about how to survive this new environment:
If you’re confused in class, go to your professor’s or TA’s office hours (dutifully followed).
Be selective about going out to eat with friends or your money will run out quickly (probably adhered to this one too much).
Visit the Writing Center before turning in every one of your papers (regretfully ignored).
Never jaywalk on Michigan Ave or You Will get a ticket (very true).
If you teach or advise college students, I imagine you dole out much of the same advice when they arrive on campus. But a burgeoning area of research counterintuitively suggests that advice may benefit the giver more than it does the receiver. Receiving advice can implicitly place us in a passive, self-doubting, and demotivated state of mind, whereas giving advice can make us feel motivated, confident, and powerful…under the right conditions. The interpersonal dynamics of advice-giving, therefore, should have bearing on how we think about helping our students succeed.
Giving Advice Is Motivational
When facing a motivational challenge—something we want to do but just can’t muster the will to do it—our own advice can be the most persuasive. In an online study, 690 individuals with specific motivational goals (i.e., wanting to save money, control their temper, lose weight, or find a new job) both gave and received advice about their particular challenge. Examples of advice given included:
“Do not pay with a credit card if you do not have to.”
“Take a slow deep breath in and out….Go for a walk outside to get fresh air.”
“My best weight loss advice is to purchase a FitBit.”
Across these different challenges, approximately 75% of people said that giving advice—not receiving advice—was more motivating for pursuing their goal and made them feel more confident in their ability to succeed! Surprisingly, another group was asked to predict the results, but they were way off: fewer than 33% believed that giving advice would be more motivating. So it seems we may underestimate the value of giving advice when facing our own challenges. Moreover, a study of 188 college students showed that giving advice to a peer about choosing a major led to a significant increase in self-reported power. Thus, if giving advice makes us feel more motivated, confident, and powerful, should we be finding ways for struggling students to give advice rather than always being on the receiving end?
Giving Advice Improves Academic Performance
But before we turn all of our students into peer advisors, we should ask: Do these motivational benefits translate to academic improvement? In short, yes they do. One hundred fifty-four middle school students wrote advice to a 4th grader who wanted to improve their vocabulary skills, while another 164 middle-schoolers evaluated advice written by an anonymous teacher. Although both exercises increased the amount of time that middle-schoolers spent studying vocabulary over the next month, those who gave advice studied 14% more than those who read advice.
Giving advice can also boost performance. Nine hundred eighty-five students from seven U.S. high schools wrote advice about optimal study strategies and locations for younger students who hoped to do better in school. These near-peer advisors earned significantly higher grades over the next quarter compared to students who gave no advice. These effects generally vanished by the following quarter—not surprising for a one-time, 8-minute activity—but one could imagine prolonging the impact of this simple intervention with “boosters” wherein students continue to advise their peers and near-peers.
What if the Advice is Ignored?
I mentioned earlier that giving advice can be motivationally and academically beneficial, but only under the right conditions. A crucial element appears to be whether the advice-giver believes that their advice has been heeded. For example, college students who gave advice about choosing a major didn’t feel any more powerful when their purported peer told them “I really think I should figure this out on my own.” Moreover, having one’s advice ignored can have damaging interpersonal effects. In another study, people whose advice was dismissed by a randomly assigned partner felt offended, created psychological distance in their relationship and were less willing to give advice to that person in the future.
It’s worth noting, however, that the advice in these studies was explicitly rejected with little consideration or tact. Other studies described above, such as those involving students advising their younger peers, illustrate the benefits of giving advice even when the impact of doing so remains ambiguous. In fact, having students advise their younger peers has been an oft-employed persuasion tactic in interventions that build growth mindsets or foster a positive sense of belonging. But this advising feedback loop must be carefully considered when leveraging advice-giving as a motivational tactic.
Advice Giving as a Means to Help Struggling Students
At Albion, I gave advice to my younger peers in a number of roles: First-Year Experience mentor, SOAR leader during summer orientation, teaching assistant, and student organization leader. As educators, we’re accustomed to the idea of students advising other students, but in most cases, students in advisory roles have already achieved some threshold of success. How can we create opportunities for struggling students to assume the role of advisor?
In my work with Persistence Plus, one of our approaches is to find an area in which students do feel successful and leverage their expertise. For example, a student may be struggling with academics, but if they feel socially comfortable on campus we ask them to give advice to other students about how to fit in. Student-athletes could advise other students about nutrition and fitness, or financially savvy students give tips for finding resources and saving money. Although more research is necessary to determine whether giving advice can lead to motivational spillover (i.e., help students to feel more confident to overcome other types of challenges in their lives), it certainly shouldn’t hurt to let students take on the role of an expert whenever they can.
Providing feedback on students' advice could also boost these effects. If otherwise ambiguous, students should see how their advice is leveraged, whether as a part of a campus flyer, LMS learning module, or orientation materials. When possible, students should hear how their peers listened to their advice and how it helped them to succeed. But be prepared to buffer students against the deleterious effects of having their advice rejected. While research has yet to explore how to lessen that impact, further opportunities to give advice would at least provide students with a second chance to build their motivation, confidence, and power.
Blunden, H., Logg, J. M., Brooks, A. W., John, L. K., & Gino, F. (2019). Seeker beware: The interpersonal costs of ignoring advice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 150, 83-100.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Fishbach, A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2018). Dear Abby: Should I give advice or receive it? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1797-1806.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Milkman, K. L., Gromet, D. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2019). A large-scale field experiment shows giving advice improves academic outcomes for the advisor. PNAS, 116(30), 14808-14810.
Schaerer, M., Tost, L., Huang, L., Gino, F., & Larrick, R. (2018). Advice giving: A subtle pathway to power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), 746-761.