Ever since the markets became front page news, I’ve been caught in some sort of economics blog vortex. At this point, most of my reading is no longer directed towards macro-economic issues and institutional critique, but rather focuses on the economics department at George Mason. The problem is that it seems like these people really do know more about some things of general interest than ordinary folks.

So when Bryan Caplan started advising his colleagues on what to do this year (making hypothetical resolutions for them) I especially perked up when he suggested that Tyler Cowen write a book of advice:

Tyler Cowen should write that I call a “book of answers” with the working title Social Intelligence: What I Know About People That You Don’t. The key point of departure: The goal of the book is not to “get readers to ask themselves questions,” but to convey definite answers that Tyler defends without irony.  If you think this goes against his nature, I’ve seen him do this many times first-hand – just not in print.

Cowen apparently agrees with Caplan’s assessment, and responded with some advice about advice:

You don’t know what a person really thinks until you hear his or her advice.  Along these lines, if you really want to know what a person thinks, ask for advice and he or she will open up.

Ben Casnocha jumped in with 14 thoughts about advice, the best of which is:

Even if you know the other person is biased, studies show you still don’t discount that bias enough. Your car mechanic wants to sell you more parts, and you know that he wants to do that, but we still don’t discount his advice as much as we should.

Advising seems to be the space most often shot through with status games, power relations, and biases. This is a pretty standard cautionary line in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis: being consulted  encourages us to forget our fallibility, because an intimate request for action items short-circuits the standards of public justification that would normally guide a person seeking the truth.

We ought to be most cautious when our own advice is sought: the risk is that, as an advisor, we will trick ourselves into believing that our consultor has knowingly and legitimately granted us status as ‘The One Who Knows’ and thus not subject our own judgments to appropriate testing and skepticism. At the same time, the consultor who really doesn’t know the right answer (rather than using advice-seeking as a method to develop trust) will experience the lack of qualification of personal advice and be inclined to assume that the advisor has a legitimate expertise beyond prejudice and preference. As a result, two people (or many people) move from probably-justified uncertainty to probably-unjustified certainty through a method that reflection shows is not trustworthy.

On this basis, I suspect that the best advice is the most tentative advice, which regularly and honestly signals its own fallibility. (But beware false modesty!) Giving and receiving this sort of advice is most likely to model an authentic inquiry in which participants will continue seeking beyond the initial consultation.


8 responses to “Advice”

  1. Dr. J Avatar

    I look upon your advice with utter disdain. 😉

  2. Dr. J Avatar

    But, seriously, I really like this post. One of the things I dislike the MOST about my job is advising students. I mean, the ones who are my real "advisees." So much PRESSURE! I don't mind– even enjoy— sharing my advice with students who independently ask me for it… but the I feel like the advisor/advisee structure for first-years (before they've chosen a major and selected an advisor) is wrought with peril.

    It's not unlike the relationship we have with mechanics that you note in this post, I think.

    1. Joshua Avatar

      "Should I go fight the Nazis, or stay home with my mother?"

  3. Dr. J Avatar

    Oh, and here's some unsolicited advice: GET OFF THE ECONOMICS ALREADY!!! I much prefer the AnPan who talks about politics and ethics… without a calculator handy!

    1. Joshua Avatar

      Heh. I was thinking of a request for advice similar to this, actually: what should I write about this year? What topics should I focus on? I hit 10,000 visitors recently, and I was thinking: what do all these people like to read? I recall you did something similar when you got to that mark.

  4. Dr. J Avatar

    Yeah, when I hit 10K I borrowed an idea from Petya's blog where she did something that she called the "Just Ask" Challenge. So, readers could send in any question and I would try to do a post answering it. It was only a moderate success.

  5. […] obligations as potential authorities in the face of a difficult status quo. (See, for instance, my concerns about advice.) Anyway, if we ever adopted such a test, here are some links that’d be worth using as part […]

  6. […] of the effort to reduce the irreducible complexity of the world to a single variable, and of the dangers of tricking oneself into believing one’s own hype. But this is not […]

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