Why don't we follow good advice, even our own!
August 19, 2006 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Why is it so difficult for us to follow patently useful advice from a neutral (i.e., presumably objective) source (i.e., so NOT advice from someone we have a personal connection to)? To keep things simple, consider the advice in cliched proverbs like "Haste makes waste" or "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (Polonious to Hamlet). The "wisdom" embodied in these maxims is obvious, and yet we all rush, and we all borrow/lend, and later regret it. Not just proverbial advice, but ALL advice is difficult to follow. Why? Knowing of these difficulties, how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed? I don't think there's a simple answer here, leads and speculations much appreciated!
posted by adamrobinson to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Advice comes from realizations of the advisor who doesn't realize that these same realizations must be invoked in the advisee before the advisee realizes the merits of the advice.
posted by null terminated at 5:06 PM on August 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

For a start, proverbs conflict. How can one follow both, "He who hesitates is lost" and, "Look before you leap"?

Anyhow, you say "I don't think there's a simple answer here" — I would say "I don't think there's any answer here". AskMe is for real answers to real questions, not "leads and speculations" offered in response to a discussion point you've posed.
posted by matthewr at 5:10 PM on August 19, 2006

More than one answer.

Our decision processes are tied in with our emotions.
Much research has been done here- you could start with looking up dopamine in Scientific American articles.
Much of our world-view is pre-verbal, and resists control.
We are genetically set up to be delusional in our self-perceptions, to our own benefit.

Edward Tufte specifically notes that the Challenger explosion could've been avoided if engineers had framed the data in a way the decision-makers could understand.
The frame of reference of the person needing advice is usually lacking something that is implicit to the advisor.
posted by dragonsi55 at 5:15 PM on August 19, 2006

We don't always follow the advice because the wisdom is NOT "obvious." It may not be right for our own situations.

Impartial doesn't mean it's right for us. To use your example of "neither a borrower or a lender be," certainly following this advice keeps your life simple. But that doesn't make it "right." I have loaned and borrowed plenty in my life, and have rarely regretted it.
posted by The Deej at 5:17 PM on August 19, 2006

One follow-up.
A real answer can be complex and situational.
This happens in science all the time.
For example, ethanol ingested at a certain stage of embryonic development can cause a cleft palate; at other times the result would be 'no effect'.

If somebody asks a question, they may not know there is a perfectly concrete answer.
AskMe may have the person with that concrete answer.
If there isn't a perfect answer yet, the people of AskMe usually refine the question.

Is there a better site to ask deep questions?
posted by dragonsi55 at 5:27 PM on August 19, 2006

It's simple.

We all think we're above average, and therefore the advice couldn't possibly apply to us.
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:39 PM on August 19, 2006

I believe it's more our own temperaments and habits that prevent us from following good advice. We want to be ourselves and not what others want us to be.

Like the addict who can't give up drugs, we hold onto our believe that doing things fast will make them better, or that lending money makes us a better person, while borrowing money will bring us success, no matter how many times we get burnt.

My philisophical quota is now full for the week
posted by cathoo at 5:51 PM on August 19, 2006

Most of the advice I hear from others is either, "I like telling others what to do" or "You are not living your life exactly as I would so you are wrong". Since most advice I hear has more to do with the "issues" of the one giving it I feel more inclined to ignore it all. As for ignoring good advice, people are flawed, it is our nature to foul up.
posted by Iron Rat at 5:54 PM on August 19, 2006

The "wisdom" embodied in these maxims is obvious, and yet we all rush, and we all borrow/lend, and later regret it. Not just proverbial advice, but ALL advice is difficult to follow. Why?

The question is flawed. Advice isn't wisdom at all unless it turns out to be the best thing to have done; otherwise, it's just an arbitrary position.

Knowing of these difficulties, how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed?

Appeal to emotion; pride, vanity, fear, etc. That usually convinces people if done well.
posted by clockzero at 6:08 PM on August 19, 2006

Didn't I just read about this issue in a book by Dan Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness?

Also note that in order for you to learn from a question you need to know about 90% of the answer. Quite often advisors leave out critical detail because to them the detail that supplies the answer is obvious whereas to the advisee with the beginner's mind all details are equally important. Signal to noise ratio's between the advisor and advisee are completely different.
posted by ptm at 6:14 PM on August 19, 2006

Response by poster: I am chagrined to report that it was Polonious addressing his son, Laertes, not Hamlet. So much for my memory of the play. Thanks to jamjam for discreetly pointing out my literary faux pas.
posted by adamrobinson at 6:27 PM on August 19, 2006

how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed?

isnt it ultimately the advisee's responsiblity to follow advice?
unless you're working in advertising or evangelicalism or govt brainwashing where stark obedience is what you would like to produce; in those cases seems to me its not the words so much as some form of a tangible bribe that really gets people to play along.
posted by jak68 at 6:34 PM on August 19, 2006

The thing is, Polonius is a fool. Not that the advice is necessarily bad, but in context it's given by a muddle-headed old toady who's main purpose in the play is to interfere in other people's lives, badly. The play doesn't offer that up as a nugget of true wisdom, but of the folly inherent in giving other people cliche advice.
posted by occhiblu at 7:10 PM on August 19, 2006

1. As others have suggested, the proverbs are bad examples of your proposition. "Haste makes waste" is hard to follow because it's a vague standard -- hastiness is difficult to judge until the consequences are learned. "Neither a borrower" is either bad advice or worthwhile, too, only when some difficult to establish line has been crossed.

2. Is advice hard to follow, or rarely followed? Actually, I'd think that advice, broadly construed, is very often followed. What makes you think to the contrary? Proverbs are often invoked in criticism, but as stated above, these are often post hoc judgments. Other times they are meant to reaffirm our own implementation of the advice. Of course, we remember better when advice is not heeded. Insert obligatory reference to selection bias.

3. Exception to #2: advice to limit time surfing is never, ever heeded.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:11 PM on August 19, 2006


When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.
You lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

And, right now, you're having this realization. How Meta.
posted by filmgeek at 8:02 PM on August 19, 2006

I love proverbs, saws, maxims, apothegms and all the rest whose names escape me at the moment, and I used to collect them a bit when I was in high school. Some of the best, I thought (and do think) are in Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as "Proverbs of Hell" such as "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" and "Prudence is a rich old maid courted by incapacity" and "He who has suffered you to impose on him, knows you" and "One thought fills immensity" and quite a few others, many of which are more exhortatory than the ones I've chosen here.

But when I was living in the dorm my freshman year in college, the boy living down at the end of the hall went insane (suffered a sudden onset of paranoid schizophrenia) and during the two weeks before he was taken away in an ambulance never to return, after spending fourteen straight hours standing on the lawn outside his room staring fixedly at a sprinkler head, we all knew that something had gone wrong when he plastered his room with hundreds and then thousands of little strips of paper with pithy instructional sayings written on them. For years I kept the 3'x6" banner which said 'EVERY DAY eat an apple EVERY DAY' and a bunch of others in smaller writing in the background (and I do eat an apple everyday, it occurs to me as I write this). The next semester I began to study Blake in earnest, and discovered he was widely considered to have been schizophrenic, as well.

I did begin to wonder if my interest in these things was quite as benign as I had always thoughtlessly assumed; and now, many years later, I do think they can get a special kind of grip on our minds somewhat like the 'hook' in a popular song, and I still have a faint unease about them, which I would summarize as that it sometimes feels to me as if we exist as much for their benefit as they do for ours. I also think an intense interest in sayings is a kind of developmental stage, and that as a person ages, nets woven of language seems less and less adequate to capture the truth.

To try to bend all this around as far as I can toward being an actual answer to your question, I would say proverbs are true mainly as a means, but only one of several means, to get us to pass them along to another person, and that they are not generally designed, therefore, to even be capable of being followed.
posted by jamjam at 8:25 PM on August 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think its because "throw caution to the wind" is sexier advice than the ones you listed and sexy advice trumps good advice.
posted by Aghast. at 8:47 PM on August 19, 2006

Quote: "Knowing of these difficulties, how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed?"

I'm interested in this question too, from a public health perspective. My whole research focus right now is on framing health promotion messages (specifically around nutrition and physical activity). Sometimes health promotion campaigns are successful on their own, but usually they must be paired with government and societal enforcement to be successful.

Anyway, lots of people are trying to find effective ways to "give advice." It's a complicated area. I'm a believer in the Transtheoretical Model, myself.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:04 PM on August 19, 2006

Why is it so difficult for us to follow patently useful advice
It's a selection effect.

The stuff that's easy to do, nobody needs advice about.

The mere fact that advice is commonly given about a subject or task implies that it is difficult. If the advice were easy to follow, you wouldn't need to give the advice.

how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed

Apply positive or negative incentives so that obedience to your advice is easier than disobedience.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:48 PM on August 19, 2006

The examples you give are both cases where looking out for long term interests is overridden by short term gain, which humans are notoriously bad at. Why are we bad at it? Huge question. Probably has to do with evolution, not knowing how long we'll be around, etc. If Derek Parfit is right, because we don't remain the same person for very long.

By the way, it's fascinating how many proverbs there are involving overriding short term gains in favor of long term interests. "A stitch in time saves nine.", "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.", "A penny saved is a penny earned", etc.

Then again, there are just as many contraries ("Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.") so I'm going to go with matthewr's conflicting point.
posted by ontic at 10:40 PM on August 19, 2006

I could offer you some good advice on how to get your advice accepted; but you probably wouldn't take it.
posted by flabdablet at 1:53 AM on August 20, 2006

See also.
posted by reklaw at 3:28 AM on August 20, 2006

This question seems to be a species of the general philosophical problem that's known as "the weakness of the will." Why is it that we so often find it hard, or even impossible, to do what we know we should? Google "weakness of the will" for much more.
posted by bricoleur at 8:47 AM on August 20, 2006

In my experience much of it has to do with our bad habits, the already-set modes of behavior that run us on autopilot 99% of the time. There's a vast difference between knowing intellectually what's the right thing to do and having said knowledge sink in on a deep, habitual level so that you actually do something about it. Changing the latter level consciously can be done, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and perseverance, and usually conscious tracking of your progress. Not something that can be enacted easily or overnight.
posted by markcholden at 9:44 AM on August 20, 2006

It is because generally the kinds of situations the sort of advice you're referring to involve a situation where despite the clear wisdom of a particular choice, the opposite choice brings some equally clear if transient reward. Being in debt sucks but having things you can't afford to pay for is awesome! If somebody gives me great advice that is easy to follow I follow it. It isn't something intrinsic about advice that makes it hard to follow, you just don't think much about situations where it is not hard to follow.

As far as making advice more effective, I think the only thing that helps at all is to be able to provide real examples - either the positive example of one's life or stories of negative outcomes from the past (though I think the former is more effective). Advice that merely asserts an abstract truth doesn't really influence anyone. Examples, stories that allow the person to really project themselves into the reality of the situation may influence behavior. In general you just have to learn some shit for yourself, though. (Huh, I guess I can get addicted to cigarettes after all. What do you know, quitting really is hard!).
posted by nanojath at 2:44 PM on August 20, 2006

I know what you mean. After all, "Don't post chatfilter questions to AskMe" is a fairly hoary chestnut around these parts. And yet people can't avoid posting chatfilter.
posted by klangklangston at 6:33 PM on August 20, 2006

"Not just proverbial advice, but ALL advice is difficult to follow. Why? Knowing of these difficulties, how is it possible for those offering advice to frame/formulate the advice in a form most likely to be followed? I don't think there's a simple answer here, leads and speculations much appreciated!"

Well, they're easier said than done.
posted by klangklangston at 6:35 PM on August 20, 2006

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