The Problem with Giving Advice

Epistemic Status: I’m highly confident this is a phenomenon that occurs with a lot of advice people give, but I’m quite uncertain about the best way to deal with it when trying to give advice to more than one person.

The main thing people fail to consider when giving advice is that someone with ostensibly the same problem may require a vastly different solution than themselves. The underlying cause of the problem in many cases may be the exact opposite of what it was for you.

Many issues in life are caused by being too extreme. Either extreme is problematic-both too much of something or too little. Often people only think about one extreme (or one possible failure mode, we’re not limited to only two!) when they give advice because that is the problem they themselves had to overcome. It fails to occur that not only might this advice not be helpful, it might be actively detrimental to a person struggling with the opposite problem. To use a concrete example, imagine a runner is trying to improve their 5K time and asks a more accomplished runner for advice. The faster runner suggests that if the questioner wants to break through their plateau they will probably need to do more high intensity interval training. After all, the faster runner can remember that was what they needed to do to progress past their own plateau. Unfortunately, the slower runner’s problem is that they are overtraining, their muscles do not have sufficient time to recover and become stronger, limiting improvement. This advice will thus be completely counterproductive, and will probably lead to injury if the runner tries too hard to follow it.

The issue is that it is instinctive to ask “how would this advice have affected me?” when evaluating possible advice to give, rather than “is this the sort of scenario in which that sort of advice would be useful, accounting for the individual receiving the advice?” From this one might be tempted to derive the following lesson: never give anyone important advice unless you have thoroughly questioned what their problem is and are very confident you understand both the problem and the underlying cause.

If you have the resources and time to give people individual advice I think this is a reasonable principle to abide by. But we often do not have this luxury, sometimes we want to give advice to multiple people at once. Sometimes we just don’t have the time or resources to inquire deeply into the specifics of someone’s problem. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that even once you try to consider how to give advice that doesn’t accidentally hurt someone you may fail to imagine all the ways your advice might do harm because you underestimate how different other people are from yourself.

So how do we avoid giving people bad advice? One solution is to adopt a policy of not giving unpersonalized advice, of course, but assuming we still believe we have useful things we want to say to people how should we proceed? For audiences who understand this problem with advice, one might avoid a lot of potential damage by starting discussion of possible ways you imagine the advice might go wrong and asking a reader/​listener to consider themselves before applying the advice. Unfortunately, for broader audiences this technique will probably not work unless you can take the time to explain all this because it will look like you aren’t sure of your own advice and are hedging your bets or some such. And you certainly will not always have the time to explain this. A simple disclaimer that most good advice is situational and depends on the person may help some people avoid harm, especially if you are giving advice you know to be potentially dangerous from a position of expertise or authority, though I suspect most people would ignore such warnings.

Does anyone have any other strategies to avoid/​minimize the unintentional harm advice may cause?