As a parent, I am often confronted with the hypocrisy of advice-giving. There are plenty of things I have recommended to my kids that are courses of action that I have not taken myself. Some of that is that I want my kids to avoid some of the mistakes I have made. But, some of it is also that the way you give advice differs from the way you decide what to do yourself.
An interesting paper in the February, 2015 issue of theby Sarah Helfinstein, Jeanette Mumford, and Russ Poldrack examined an important factor that leads people’s recommendations for others to differ from what they themselves would do.
Participants were asked about a variety of risky behaviors across a number of domains including social risks (like moving away from family), recreational risks (like bungee jumping), financial risks (like betting a day’s wages at poker), safety risks (like driving without a seatbelt) and ethical risks (like not returning a wallet with a lot money in it). These were taken from a normed inventory called the DOSPERT.
Participants all rated the potential benefit, potential cost, and likelihood that they would incur the cost for each of these risky behaviors. They also rated how likely it was that other people engaged in these behaviors. Finally, participants either rated their willingness to engage in that behavior themselves or their willingness to recommend the behavior to someone else.
Overall, people were not really more or less willing to engage in risky behaviors themselves than to recommend them to others. In some domains (like social and safety risks, people were more willing to perform the actions themselves than they were to recommend them to others. In other domains (like recreational and financial risks) people were less wiling to perform the actions themselves than to recommend them to others.
It is the determinants of these recommendations that are most interesting. People were more likely to perform an action and to recommend it when there was perceived benefit for doing it and less likely to perform or recommend it when there was a significant cost and when that cost was seen as being likely to happen.
The big place where willingness to perform an action differed from the recommendations people made was in the influence of the likelihood that other people perform the action. When recommending an action to others, the likelihood that other people perform the action did not matter much. But, engagement of other people increased people’s willingness to perform the action themselves. That is, people succumb to peer pressure. When we perceive that other people are performing an action, it makes us more likely to perform it ourselves.
This tendency is true for decisions that do not involve risk as well. For example, studies of consumer products demonstrate that the leading brands in different product categories has remained relatively stable for a long time. Gillette has been the leading brand of razors and Tide has been the leading brand of detergent for over 50 years. Part of what helps brands like these to maintain their dominance is their perceived popularity. Even without knowing it explicitly, we buy what we think other people are buying.
When you are contemplating a decision, then, it is worth asking yourself both what you are thinking of doing as well as what you might recommend to someone else. If you think that there is a difference between what you would do yourself and what you would recommend, then stop and think about whether you might be better off doing what you would recommend to someone else.