As someone who writes advice for a living, I’m always interested in the ways advice works, how it gets distorted and what the typical advice-receiver can do about it.
Recently, I came across some research that suggests a new way advice-givers aren’t being totally honest with you: paternalistic advice bias.
Here’s the abstract, from the journal article:
“Despite the near universality of the maxim that one should treat others as one ought to be treated, even well-intended advisers often advise others to act differently than they choose for themselves. We review several psychological factors that contribute to biased advice. Absent pecuniary motives to the contrary, advice tends to be paternalistically biased in favor of caution. Policies that would intuitively promote quality advice — such as making advisers accountable, taking advice from advisers who value the relationship, or having advisers disclose potential conflicts of interest — can perversely lower the quality of advice.”
Biased Advice Leads to Excess Caution
The idea here makes intuitive sense. An advice-giver, whether its someone giving advice in the form of a blog article, or a friend or mentor suggesting a course of action, is not merely transmitting what they know from their own experience.
Instead, there’s a subtle cost-benefit calculation that has to be done when giving advice. And here, there’s a big problem: the flaw of bad advice. If you give someone advice that ends up going disastrously wrong, you might get blamed for that. And the blame, reputationally speaking, might be worse than the benefit of helping you win big.
To use a purely hypothetical example, imagine you have to ask a trusted friend for advice about quitting your job to start a business. Suppose this person knows, privately, that there’s a 30% chance you’ll be a big success and 10% chance you’ll lose quite a bit of money, with the remaining 60% of the time the change is relatively neutral.