Advice columns, horoscopes, therapists, and opinion articles—these are all ways in which we seek out the advice of others on important issues we care about.
We might spend copious amounts of hours watching Oprah, Dr. Oz, or some other voice in the social sphere that we value, informing us how we should all act in the world.
We seem to look everywhere except within.
Some of how we define and value the role of advice in our lives come down to cultural and historical values and also tells us how our culture defines what it means to value a communal form of wisdom-sharing.
But, why do we search for advice? What is happening in our brain when we do? Is all advice great advice? How do we know? We’re going to explore all of this.
Advice has been an intrinsic part of human history. Some of the earliest recorded poems, which were written by Enheduanna, who was a Sumerian High Priestess, had a lot to say about politics, the abuse of power of men, and how to show compassion to one another. Her worldview was not just scribbled on her own private walls—her poetry was shared publicly. Her audience would have heard and would have been directly influenced by her words.
Advice was a part of helping develop some of the earliest human societies. Everything from the Code of Hammurabi to the 10 Commandments, advice was a divinely sanctioned practice. People took it seriously. Even the Greeks sought outside perspective from the Oracles at Delphi—from politics to fashion, the oracles would advise pilgrims, visitors, and even anyone willing to pay for their services.
However, there are many components to how advice affects us. The brain has three main components that are at work when we are seeking or giving advice. One major contributor is known as the Striatum, which is part of the brain’s reward hub, “…is part of the basal ganglia — clusters of neurons deep in the center of the brain. … The striatum in particular processes signals from the cortex about desired goals and prompts other neurons in the basal ganglia to initiate actions to achieve those goals…” It’s the part of the brain that seeks out an action. It wants to know how we actively invest in what we are hearing.
What does this mean for advice? Well, scrolling our social media feeds and encountering the inspirational memes our friends share might be enough to get us out of bed and maybe even give us a couple of hours of motivation—but, after we hit the wall from our caffeine crash, we need something a bit more tangible to keep us going. So, advice, according to neuroscience, mirrors this same exact sentiment.
Our brain is looking for step-by-step templates or methods when we are looking for advice from others. Our brain wants us to walk away with practical guided steps on how to achieve our goals or find more peace. Everything from employee engagement to how to fix a waning marriage are things that sadly cannot be fixed with quotes from Albert Einstein. There is a reason for that: our brain is literally seeking out action-oriented ways to fix things. Advice that does not have this is simply not advice at all.
This also is the same for those who are giving advice out to their friends or colleagues. If all we do is rely on trite clichés to help move our friends along, then we become part of the very backdrop that sustains their issues, rather than advising them with real-world solutions. It is our adaptive ability to be creative that can make all the difference in the world for those we care about. We need to tap into that rather than rely on inspirational posts to do the important work we are capable of.
If we see the act of giving advice as an evolutionary adaptation that has evolved into what it is, then we can begin to see why we have the tool of advice-giving and the ability to listen to the advice of others—to ultimately find out who is part of our supportive tribe. To find out those who care for us, cheer us on, and believe in us enough to invest time, words, and their ears to help us develop.
There are a lot of other benefits found in either giving or receiving advice.
“Those who are truly open to guidance (and not just looking for validation) develop better solutions to problems than they would have on their own. They add nuance and texture to their thinking—and, research shows, they can overcome cognitive biases, self-serving rationales, and other flaws in their logic. Those who give advice effectively wield soft influence—they shape important decisions while empowering others to act.
As engaged listeners, they can also learn a lot from the problems that people bring them. And the rule of reciprocity is a powerful binding force: Providing expert advice often creates an implicit debt that recipients will want to repay.” ~ David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis
Advice-giving is a way to show how those around us have inherent value—enough that we would take time to listen to their personal cares and for us to try and help them. Advice has shown to help reduce cognitive biases, which can lead to a more open-minded exchange where both the giver and receiver grow from the exchange.
According to research, we prefer to give advice to others, rather than receive it. We love to help, but it’s harder for us to receive it. Some of this could be due to whether or not there is history between the people who are looking for advice and giving it. Trust is the glue that holds the foundational right for advice to be given and for it to be received. Unwarranted advice can cause unnecessary distrust, fear, and anxiety in new relationships. It can end a relationship before it begins depending on the intentions of the one giving advice. Narcissistic Personality Disorder and fervent advice-giving tend to also be comfortable bedfellows.
So, what is the difference between traditional advice-giving and someone with NPD? Well, it comes down to the history in the relationship and the context where the advice is shared. It also comes down to humility, listening, and empathy. If none of those are the reasons behind giving advice, then the advisement must be treated accordingly.
What we do know about advice is that when rightly given, it can feel like empathy, like support, encouragement, inspiration, motivation, and even love. Great advice can help us to change our lives for the better, become a better leader, become a more empathetic parent, and ultimately encounter the potential we know we’ve been hiding for far too long.
If you give advice, give that kind. It will change both of your lives!