Why is advice largely useless?

"Follow the Oldtimers Advice." - NAR...

“Follow the Oldtimers Advice.” – NARA – 514272 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Illustration of advice

Illustration of advice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Right hand thumb rule

English: Right hand thumb rule (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Good advice! Or you'll find out just ...

English: Good advice! Or you’ll find out just how slow those lions really are! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Good Advice

Good Advice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caricature condemning Buller: Judge Thumb - Pa...

Caricature condemning Buller: Judge Thumb – Patent Sticks for Family Correction – Warranted Lawful! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is advice largely useless?


If I followed all the advice I’ve been given and it worked as intended, I would be fantastically productive, perfectly healthy, filthy rich, and getting laid all the time. None of those descriptions seem particularly apt. (I exaggerate for effect. In reality I have read advice on all sorts of things. Most topics were more mundane than those I listed, for example advice on relieving stress or staying organized.) If people are constantly inundated with advice, why do they, by and large, fail to achieve the things the advice was meant to help with?

Confirmation bias is my candidate for the top reason. People who succeed (and are most likely to offer “advice”) make up idiotic reasons for why they succeeded, mostly discounting the role of luck, and writing self-serving stories and “prescriptions” that are less about helping others and more about self-aggrandization.

More specifically, this comes down to an almost incredible capacity to ignore necessary/sufficient conditions for a particular piece of advice to work.

For me, a piece of advice that does not have an if… then… structure is completely useless, because my basic bullshit detector filter is a “there’s no free lunch” rule of thumb.

Almost nobody prefaces advice with the condition, “this will work for you if _________ and will not work if ____________”

The presence of that structure, on the other hand, makes me immediately take the person seriously, because they’ve taken the trouble to convert a single example (i.e. an existence proof) into a more general truth statement that is carefully circumscribed.

Also a lot of advice that apparently works does not work because of the content of the advice, but the sheer fact of somebody offering an understanding and sympathetic reaction to another person’s situation. That alone can be enough sometimes, whether or not the advice is valid. It’s sort of a placebo effect. It’s what people call “motivational speaking” as opposed to real advice.

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