The unexpected perks of giving advice

Maria Isabel Garcia

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We seek advice because we want to hear from other people and find possible solutions to our problems, or new ways of looking at challenges. But what does it do to the one who gives the advice?

I found a way to make the metro traffic not just bearable but even productive. I was recently on my way to meet with a very dear longtime friend about work. Driving, I chose to listen to the audiobook by Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh called “The Art of Communicating.” I needed advice on how to be able to have a meaningful conversation with my friend that will make us both inspired to come up with work solutions. 

Before I listened to the audiobook, I thought I had already distilled in my head what I wanted to tell my friend. Essentially it was that she was wrong in her recent approaches. But an hour and a half later, by the time I parked my car, I heard myself telling myself: “It is you who is wrong to think that. This is about making sure that the enormous good she has been responsible for will not be overshadowed by recent challenges.” I came out of my car with that advice solid in my head and came out of my meeting with my friend feeling great that we were able to lay out a workable plan ahead as we also celebrated our friendship and trust in each other. 

Why do we seek advice? The answer seems obvious. We want to hear from other people and find possible solutions to our problems, or new ways of looking at challenges. The benefit seems obvious to those who receive the advice as it was to me after I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh. But what does it do to the one who gives the advice? I have yet to find out what it does, but a recently published study revealed that there is real benefit to the advisor.

The study was on high school adolescents who gave advice to younger students on learning strategies that could improve their academic situations. The researchers randomly assigned 1,982 high school students and they had to give an 8-minute online advice to younger students on how to stop procrastinating. They gave advice on where best to study and how. Then, they were also asked to write a letter to an anonymous younger student who was “hoping to be better in school.” Those who gave advice were also asked to pick a target class where they themselves wanted to improve on. At the end of the school year, the advisors’ grades were collected from the target class and their math class.

You might be wondering why the study picked these two measures even if the advice they gave to the younger students was not specific to math and those target classes. They did because, since giving advice is about motivation, then it was reasonable to assume that this would affect the class that the advisors themselves wanted to be better at. For math, well, math is notoriously known to induce anxiety among students relative to other subjects, and that students generally lack confidence in tackling this subject. If advice-giving improved confidence, then the researchers bet that this could improve how the advisors fare in math. And indeed, the study’s findings showed that the advisors earned significantly higher grades in both the target class they identified and in math in an academic quarter. 

A question now would be how an 8-minute advising session could positively benefit the advisors themselves. To this, the researchers affirmed that indeed there are many simple and short but “psychologically informed” interventions like this that could produce long-lasting change in behavior. I can understand that. I once recently asked my workmates to think about the most fascinating conversation they have had in their entire lives. You would be amazed how conversations that lasted only seconds have influenced them in lasting ways. I can also attest that in my own little adventures of giving advice when asked, I also catch myself saying to myself, “You may want to follow your own advice right now.” 

Based on other studies, there are several reasons why the researchers wanted to see if they can prove that advice-giving benefits not just the advisee but also the advisor.

One is because studies have also shown that thinking up advice also moves advisors to draw up concrete plans to encourage matching behavior in their own lives. Another reason is how laboratory tests have shown that giving advice increases self-reported confidence and motivation of the advisors themselves.

The third reason is the most interesting for me because this goes both ways. When we hear religious zealots or mad politicians do this, we have a sense that who they are and what they say come together as one, which is terrifying. This is the “economical” approach of the brain, because it is much harder for the brain to live with a lie every minute, which in this sense, is the difference between what they say and who they are. That is why their brains just iron it out for them as one which may be good for their own sanity but really horrible for the truth and others affected by their lies. But the other side is, when we hear Thich Nhat Hanh and also know that he is a master practictioner of “mindfulness,” we are also struck by how genuinely he is put together and we are inspired to unite what we ourselves say and do for the good.  

So if you give advice on governing, check if you are governing yourself and your own wild impulses. If you give advice on parenting, watch your own parenting skills. If you give advice on financial health, watch how your own financial stream is running. Studies have shown that giving advice could make you have a better hold of your own self – in speech and deeds.

Advice helps both the advisor and the advisee because we really are shaped by our own experiences, including, and maybe most deeply, by what we say and do. Things do not just happen to us – we also deeply “happen” to others and ourselves in ways that define who we are and the lives that we lead. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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