Five Things to Consider When Giving Advice

We’re kicking off Summer of Sooth with some thoughts on the psychology of advice from the SoothPsychs Lab. The first one comes from Vivian Ta of University of Texas Arlington


Your best friend, Dan, calls you. By the sound of his voice, you can sense that something is wrong. He tells you that he just got into another huge fight with Anna, his girlfriend of 5 years, and is on the verge of breaking up with her. “What should I do?” he asks. Before you proceed, here are 5 things you should consider before giving Dan advice.

1. Beware of people’s illusions. “She’s from New York so she’s always rude to me. That’s just the way New Yorkers are,” Dan says. You remember the time you visited NY and accidently bumped into someone walking down the street who responded “Hey! Watch it, asshole!” Maybe Dan is right. Maybe everyone from NY is rude. Dan deserves to be with someone who is less rude, right? Not so fast. This is an example of an illusory correlation, the belief that two things are related to each other when they really aren’t. When we encounter someone who conforms to our beliefs regarding a certain group (e.g., meeting a New Yorker who is rude), our beliefs regarding that group become strengthened. But what about your sweet Aunt Beth who is from New York? She’s living proof that not all New Yorkers are rude. Here’s the catch: humans have the tendency to forget the exceptions. In Dan’s case, maybe he or a third-party variable is the cause of Anna’s rudeness, which Dan has attributed to where she’s from. Remember, just because two things seem like they’re related to each other, doesn’t always mean they are.

2. How are they acting? “I’m a terrible boyfriend. She’s going to break up with me anyways,” says Dan. If this is what Dan believes, he’ll probably act like it, too. He may distance himself from Anna, pick fights, or engage in other harmful relationship behaviors. In turn, Anna is likely to respond negatively, which will reinforce Dan’s belief that he is a terrible boyfriend. The road runs both ways, too: Perhaps Anna is the one who believes that Dan is a terrible boyfriend. This will affect the way she treats Dan, which will thus affect the way Dan treats her in a way that will reinforce that belief. This is an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy: any positive or negative expectation about circumstances, events, or people that may affect a person’s behavior toward them in a manner that causes those expectations to be fulfilled. Perhaps Dan (or Anna) is engaging in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy without realizing it.

3. Check the temperature. Your surrounding temperature may influence what kind of advice you give and how you give it. Hot temperatures have been shown to increase aggression in people. For example, if Dan calls you while you’re in a car with no A/C on a 100 degree day, this may lead you to lash out verbally against Anna and encourage him to break up with her. In other words, heat can exacerbate negative attitudes. Make sure you’re in a comfortable climate to decrease the chances of saying something extreme or something you don’t mean.

4. Make sure you really know who you’re talking about. Let’s say that Anna is blonde and you automatically assume that she must be a ditzy bimbo. This may lead you to tell Dan that he should break up with her even though you may not know anything else about her. This is known as the implicit personality theory: Humans have the tendency to believe that certain characteristics co-occur in people. For example, many people believe that a person who wears glasses is also intelligent, or that an attractive person is also sociable. When giving advice, don’t unfairly associate certain personality characteristics with people simply because you believe they go together. Be sure that you really know who you’re talking to and who you’re talking about.

5. Consider the power of the situation. You may be inclined to believe that Dan’s relationship problems are due to the fact that Anna is difficult to get along with. In other words, the problems are due to her internal characteristics (i.e., her personality) and it explains why she’s been arguing with Dan frequently. Maybe it’s the reverse: perhaps it’s Dan who is the difficult one. Either way, you have just committed the fundamental attribution error which is the tendency for people to place an emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone’s behavior rather than considering the situation itself.  Social psychologists stress the importance of the situation when predicting and explaining people’s behaviors. Keep in mind the power of the situation because it can lead people to behave a lot differently than they usually do.