The ecological benefit of giving advice

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When a friend or colleague asks you for advice, you might find yourself as anxious about your response as you are humbled by the gesture. It is no surprise then, that when the recipient appears to respond positively to your words of wisdom you’re jolted with a current of self-assurance. As you should be! That colleague or friend deemed you knowledgeable enough to provide material counsel and you were knowledgeable enough to oblige.

New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences illustrates this effect by using academic outcomes as a model. The paper was co-authored by Wharton post-doc Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Wharton professors Katherine Milkman and Angela Duckworth, and BCFG executive director Dena Gromet.

From the report: “We randomly assigned 1,982 high school students to a treatment condition, in which they gave motivational advice to younger students, or to a control condition. Advice givers earned higher report card grades in both math and a self-selected target class over an academic quarter. This psychologically wise advice-giving nudge, which has relevance for policy and practice, suggests a valuable approach to improving achievement: one that puts people in a position to give.”

The large scale field experiment promotes incentives for both parties. The advice-givers were assured after surveying their knowledge before passing it along, and the receivers were allowed first-hand insight from their trusted colleagues: a symbiotic relationship shared between the notional and the concrete.

 Giving advice improves self-improvement outcomes for the adviser

For the adviser, there are several self-regulatory profits gained from providing guidance. Most compellingly, when a subject imparts advice to another within the same discipline, the advice-giver concurrently becomes aware of how much they actually know about the subject at hand. Additionally, the fact that someone trusted them enough to seek direction from them to begin with, sees the adviser return to their reserve of information with a reinvigorated sense of authority. This conditions the mind. In order to offer sufficient advice, the giver has to focus on the things they know, excluding the things that they don’t. The end of this process alerts the adviser to their needless self-doubt by impressing the following: “I actually know quite a bit, and the bits I don’t know I could certainly learn.”

This is especially useful for boosting our confidence concerning tasks we struggle with.  Often when we feel inadequate it can seem like there is some connatural difference between us and those that succeed, when that difference is almost always one of application, not aptitude. On the back of the publication that posited the thesis above, Eskreis-Winkler recorded a short podcast with Knowledge@Wharton, where she unpacked her team’s findings. 

“People think that they’re not achieving because they’re lacking something, and often that something is information. It’s like, “I don’t have it within me. I have to go to a teacher or an expert or somebody else who can give me what I lack.” To the degree to which you’re lacking confidence, it seems like just being repositioned into the role of a giver versus a receiver can give you everything you need,” Eskreis-Winkler explained. “I think it’s a pretty counterintuitive idea that if you’re a smoker who can’t quit smoking, I would go up to you and say, “Hey, could you please advise somebody else?”

The professor went on in that same sit down to mention the imbalance of literature dedicated to the benefits for those who receive advice compared to those who merely give it. In addition to its benevolent providence, imparting advice is a nice way to revel in our academic capabilities, to take pride in the things we know.

The accumulation of information, which is all intelligence really amounts to anyway, is an ongoing pursuit. It’s also a communal one and that isn’t said nearly enough. Unlike other resources, information is at its most useful after it’s been passed around and broken in a few times.

 Though a reasoned addition was forwarded at the end of the study period, the researchers eagerly widened their aim to examine potential results when applied their postulation outside of academia.

“We expanded because we were interested in that exact question. We wanted to know not just with regard to academic achievement, but a host of self-regulatory goals — like people struggling to lose weight, to control their tempers, to save money, to motivate themselves in the job market,” Eskreis-Winkler concluded. “I’m really excited by the real-world implications. This was the first large field study, so I’d be really excited to repeat it in other domains. I think that the light-touch nature of the intervention does leave this as sort of a proof of concept. I’m convinced by the concept but excited to see the degree to which making the intervention more heavy-handed, more involving could potentially have much larger effects.”