advice week

Why Is It So Hard to Take Your Own Advice?

Photo: Justin Pumfrey/Getty Images

This week, the Cut is talking advice — the good, the bad, the weird, and the pieces of it you really wish you would have taken.

If there is one piece of advice I give regularly to my friends, it is this: “Just talk to him!” Or her, or them, or whomever. I’m constantly advising my friends that their problems would be more quickly and efficiently solved were they to just say something to the person currently stressing them out.

And, probably, this works. I wouldn’t know, as it’s something I rarely do myself. It’s one thing to give advice to someone else, dispensing thoughtful words of wisdom over Gchat. But try applying those same suggestions to your own life and it often falls apart. You definitely should just confront your friend about how much it annoys and hurts you that she has a habit of canceling plans at the last minute; I, on the other hand, have known my own flaky friend for far too long to bring it up at this point. It’s complicated. Don’t worry about it.

Really, it’s a simple matter of perspective. It’s hard to be your own adviser because you’re too close to your own problems, and so your emotions are more likely to cloud your judgement. It’s much easier to identify the most rational option, on the other hand, when you’ve got an outsider’s vantage point. “When we are in a particular situation, we take lots of irrelevant factors into account,” said Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, best-selling author, and sometime advice columnist for The Wall Street Journal. (A collection of those advice columns, titled Irrationally Yours, was published last month.) “But when we’re external to it, we sometimes look at things more objectively.”

Ariely tells me about an experiment he once did that neatly proves his point. “Think about something like getting a second opinion from doctors,” Ariely said. Imagine, Ariely asked his study participants, that your regular doctor has given you some serious diagnosis. Would you ask for a referral so you can get a second opinion? Most people, he found, say no — they don’t want to offend their doctor, even if the health stakes at hand are high. “But if we ask them if they would tell somebody else to go for a second opinion, they say, Of course, yes,” Ariely continued, adding that the insight is applicable in a wide range of situations. “When you’re in love, you can’t imagine the situation will ever change. So you keep on thinking to yourself, I will always feel this way,” he said. “But when somebody else sees you from the outside, they can say, This is right, or This is wrong, or Don’t do it, because they’re not infatuated. They can see things from a more objective way.”

Take another piece of advice I’m often giving and rarely using: When my non-journalist friends have to write something for work, they often ask me the best way to beat writer’s block. I tell them they don’t have to start from the top — just jump in anywhere that feels comfortable, and start there; once they get going, the beginning will come to them. Good advice, right? I considered following it last week, but then didn’t, choosing instead to mess with the top just a little bit longer. An hour later, I had exactly two paragraphs written.

“When we think about other people, and what might be right for them, it’s a lot easier to see them as the big picture,” explained Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA. “It’s much harder to apply that big-picture perspective to ourselves.” It’s a consequence of something psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, the idea that people explain their own actions by the circumstances, but judge others’ behavior as clear signals of their glaring character flaws. “So if I trip on the sidewalk, it must’ve been uneven,” Hershfield said. “But if you trip, you’re clumsy.” You need to follow this writing advice because you’re a beginner; I, Professional Writer, am above it, and that lede wasn’t coming to me because … because I just needed caffeine, or something.

In a roundabout way, Hershfield is in the advice business. Part of his work focuses on ways to nudge Americans into saving more for retirement, and when I interviewed him several months back about his work, I asked him if he was drawn to this line of research because he was particularly skilled at considering his future when making decisions. He laughed a little, and said it was the opposite: He was initially attracted to the subject because this is something he’s pretty bad at.

Social psychologists sometimes jokingly call this “me-search,” meaning an introspective approach to psychological research, and it’s as old as the discipline itself. Famed 19th-century psychologist William James, for instance, spent much of his career harping on the subject of habits: The key to a happy, productive life, he often argued, was to automate as much of it as possible. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation,” James wrote in his book Psychology: A Briefer Course. But, as Mason Currey points out in his (delightful) 2013 book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, James might as well have been describing himself — all his life, the psychologist struggled to stick to a regular schedule, according to his biographer.

Next time you advise someone on some matter, in other words, pay closer attention to your own words. There’s a good chance you’re saying something you need to hear, too.

Why Is It So Hard to Take Your Own Advice?