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4 June 2016

Advice columns are thriving – but are they actually doing any good?

Studies show that we often ignore the advice of others even when we've asked for it.

By Alice Robb

“Sorry to ask for advice and then, like, disregard it,” a female journalist friend said to me the other day, after a frustrating exchange in which I tried to talk her out of pitching a story about her erotic interest in being punched in the face.

Our conversation – which began with her asking if this was a bad idea and continued with me suggesting the various personal and professional repercussions that might follow – ended as most discussions of this nature end: with the advice-seeker ignoring the counsel she had solicited and sticking to the original plan.

“No one wants advice, only corroboration,” John Steinbeck wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent. Yet that doesn’t stop us from asking for it and the urge to seek advice on personal issues – from strangers, from friends, from so-called experts – has never been so easy to indulge. Entire segments of the internet, on Reddit, Quora or Yahoo! Answers, exist to help us crowd-source advice on pretty much anything from the highly specific and practical to the universal and opaque.

Recently, more established outlets have attempted to capitalise on the impulse. It has been said that the internet has ushered in a “golden age” of advice columns, although some – Slate’s “Dear Prudence” and Gawker’s “Thatz Not Okay” – veer closer to entertainment. The predicaments they address are often bizarre. One woman asked Prudence how to figure out whether or not her mother-in-law was poisoning her. Another woman asked Gawker whether she should tolerate her boyfriend’s habit of kicking her out of bed to make room for his cat. Other columnists, such as Elle’s “Ask E Jean” or the Guardian’s “Ask Alanis Morissette”, carry the torch of traditional Emily Post-style columns, sticking to questions of manners or etiquette.

One advice column in particular has inspired a cultish level of devotion. Heather Havrilesky – who launched her “Ask Polly” feature at “The Awl” before taking it to New York magazine’s “The Cut” – aspires to something more ambitious than classic agony aunts: she bills hers as an “existential advice column”. In her second book, How to Be a Person in the World, Havrilesky collects her most popular columns and answers dozens of new questions. The issues she takes on are invariably relatable: how to accept your flaws, find love, find yourself.

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Among a certain set of mostly young people, mostly women, the mindset that Havrilesky preaches – in short, be yourself and ask for what you want – is almost gospel. (“What would Heather Havrilesky tell you to do?” another friend asked me recently, in response to some romantic quandary.)

But Havrilesky’s columns aren’t really peddling advice. They offer empathy. Her answers typically run into the thousands of words – her editor at New York has called the column “long-winded” – and they are often more like personal essays than concrete prescriptions. What Havrilesky does so effectively is to mimic, as closely as a stranger can, the sort of back-and-forth talking-through that you would have with a friend. It’s not uncommon for letter writers to begin their queries with gushing praise and expressions of gratitude. “I love your advice,” one writes. “Is straight-up ‘I love you’ too much? Probably, but still, I do!” Havrilesky’s response begins: “I love you, too.”

Perhaps Havrilesky realises the pointlessness of telling people what to do. Research in behavioural science bears out the futility of that exercise. Psychologists have devised experiments to understand what they have termed “ego-centric advice discounting”. In one study, Ilan Yaniv, a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, asked students to estimate the dates of various historical events. In a second phase of the experiment, they were shown another person’s answer and asked to guess again. The students tended to revise their original answer, improving their accuracy by moving slightly in the adviser’s direction, but they continued to give their own initial opinion much greater weight. Yaniv argued that we ignore the advice of others, even if we have asked for it, because no matter how well someone explains herself, we never have full access to the internal logic and supporting arguments that informed the decision-making process.

In another study, Yaniv found that the more the adviser’s opinion differed from the subject’s, the more likely she was to ignore it. “As the message becomes more extreme, people begin to generate counter-arguments, or disparage the source,” he wrote.

Of all the categories of useless advice, relationship advice, one of Havrilesky’s favourite topics, might be the most useless of all. (A conversation that has never happened: “Should I break up with him?” “Yes.” “OK!”) Not only does no one listen to it, but no one is qualified to dispense it. People who style themselves as relationship experts are generally experts at no more than self-branding.

Not that I’m above seeking their advice. Anyone who works near me in the Brooklyn Public Library might have seen me querying the internet whether you should ask if you are “officially dating” after six dates, or when it’s no longer OK to break up over text. Does anything I read have a modicum of influence on how I act? Of course not. Ultimately, I do whatever I feel like, because personal decisions are just that – personal. But between any number of blogs and advice columns, corroboration is always within reach. 

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind