Per traditional self-help narratives, if you can’t accomplish your goal, you should ask for advice. Find someone who has successfully landed the job, gotten the promotion, made the grades, achieved the weight loss, or created the financial stability that you want. Tell this person you’re struggling. Then do what she says.
According to two leading psychologists, this theory isn’t just hackneyed, it’s wrong. Their research suggests that the key to motivation is giving advice, not receiving it.
Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, a Wharton psychologist who studies motivation, and Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth, explain that psychologists have long known problems related to self-control are connected to a lack of motivation to transform knowledge into action.
“Realizing this, we decided to turn the standard solution to self-control on its head: What if instead of seeking advice, we asked struggling people to give it,” write Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach. To answer this question, they conducted a series of experiments that appointed people struggling with self-control to advise others on the very problems they themselves were encountering. The population samples they studied included unemployed adults struggling to find a job, adults struggling to save money, adults struggling with anger management, and children falling behind in school.
“Although giving advice confers no new information to the advice giver, we thought it would increase the advice giver’s confidence,” they write. “Confidence in one’s ability can galvanize motivation and achievement even more than actual ability.”
The results suggest their thesis was right. In one study, unemployed individuals gave advice to their equally deflated peers. Then all participants read job search tips from the career advice site The Muse. After giving and receiving advice, 68% of unemployed individuals said that they felt more motivated to search for jobs after giving advice than they did after receiving it.
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach similarly found that 72% of people struggling to save money said that giving advice motivated them to save money more than receiving tips from experts at America Saves; 77% of adults struggling with anger management said they were more motivated to control their temper after giving anger management advice than they were after receiving advice from professional psychologists at the American Psychological Association; and 72% of adults struggling to lose weight said that giving weight loss advice made them feel more confident about shedding pounds than did receiving advice from a seasoned nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic.
Even more surprisingly, experiment participants were completely unaware of the effectiveness of giving advice. “They consistently expected themselves and others to be less motivated by giving advice than receiving it,” Fishbach tells Quartz.
This false expectation is likely driven by the presumption that underperformance is the result of lacking knowledge. In fact, unmotivated people often know what they need to do to succeed, they just don’t take action. “For example, people think that failed dieters don’t have information on effective diets,” Fishbach says. “But the truth is that failed dieters know quite a bit, only don’t apply their knowledge to action.”
Giving advice, as opposed to receiving it, appears to help unmotivated people feel powerful because it involves reflecting on knowledge that they already have. So if you’re completely clueless about the resources or strategies necessary for progress, asking for help is probably the best first step. But if you (like most of us), know what you need to do, but are having trouble actually doing it, giving someone advice may be the push you need.