Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Futility of Advice

When individuals find themselves in tricky situations, others sometimes offer their advice on how to get out of them. There is an implicit assumption the advisor makes in advising which makes me think most advice is not actually about improving the advisee's circumstances, but rather to signal concern, offer criticism (or threats when phrased right) or make a showing of personal accomplishment. The advice-seeker may on his part not even be that interested in getting advice, but instead just look for human contact, for instance. At any rate, all of this is useless for the purpose of actually ridding the advisee of his problems.
The implicit assumption is that the advisee has not already thought long and hard about the issue on which advice is offered. If the advisee's circumstances really are in need of improvement, no-one has a greater incentive than he to seek out ways of ameliorating them. This does not mean that all advice falls into one of the above categories. Sometimes people fail to figure out what to do, even though they try hard. One would expect better advice to be given when the advisee has actually asked for it, although the advisor's incentives to improve the advisee's circumstances still need not be that great.
Essentially, advice frequently fails to advise because people are rather self interested. Many people care about specific persons other than themselves, but it would be rare indeed to find individuals who care about themselves less than they care about other particular individuals. This means that the incentive to advise one's self is greater than is the incentive to advise others. Therefore, most advice will turn out to be obvious to the advisee.

How should advisees respond to unsolicited advice? Given that advice sometimes, perhaps often, signals sympathy, and given that sometimes even unsolicited advice is helpful, knee-jerk hostile reactions are not smart. I would write more about this issue, but now I feel a bit wary of being seen just now offering unsolicited advice.

This is perhaps a reason to be sceptical about the efficacy of certain labour-market services of an advisory character, such as the UK's Jobcentre Plus (which is in a sense asked for, but, unless I be mistaken, jobless persons receive no unemployment benefits if they do not go to the job centre). Also suspicious are admonitory efforts by schools to make kids stay away from tobacco and drugs ("drugs are bad, m'kay?"). But again, although the overall quality may not be as high as one might na├»vely hope, some advice will turn out to be good. Certain sources of advice, for instance one on how to improve written communication, are in fact really terrific.

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