Here’s why we give better advice to our friends than we give to ourselves

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton and author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” and “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” He explains why we are more likely to give better advice to our friends than to ourselves. Grant also outlines the shortcuts we use to make better and faster decisions and how they sometimes backfire.


Adam Grant: Have you ever given advice to a friend where you just felt like, “I just gave the best advice ever,” and then you found yourself in the same situation a few days later, and you made a horrible decision?

Sara Silverstein: Absolutely, I do it all the time. I’m a very good advice giver, very bad life-decision maker.

Grant: Yeah, what’s that about? Because they’re the same skills, right? Giving people advice on what to do and then making your own decisions. It’s the exact same thing. Except it’s not. It’s called Solomon’s Paradox.

Solomon’s paradox: we can see solutions to other people’s problems more clearly than our own

Grant: And the idea is that when you give other people advice, you look at the problem through a telescope, and you see the big picture, you focus on the two or three criteria that are really important. Whereas when you’re making your own decisions, you tend to look at it through a microscope, which is how we end up with these Excel spreadsheets that have 19 different columns, and then you’re adjusting the weights, how important is each factor in order to get the decision that you want.

And I think that this illustrates: it’s one thing to know what a good decision is; it’s another thing to be able to make that decision yourself. And because it’s so difficult, if you were to actually sit down and analyse every decision in your life, you could spend hours deciding, “Well, what time should I wake up? Should I wake up at 6:01 or 6:02? I mean, my whole life could be different because of that. What should I order to eat? Who should I call first this morning? Which way should I take to work?” These decisions, we could spend all day just making these potentially paralyzing decisions. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to waste our time. So what we do is we develop what are called heuristics, which are sort of mental shortcuts.

Heuristics: mental shortcuts that help us make decisions but can be flawed and lead to cognitive bias

Grant: If I can say to myself, “Well, experts are usually correct.” I don’t have to analyse a bunch of decisions where there’s already expert opinion. And a lot of times those heuristics make us smart, and they make us much more efficient decision makers. The problem is we overapply them. And so we might end up in a situation where the heuristic was good the last nine times we tried it, but you know what, now the expert is wrong, and we haven’t really stopped to think about whether we can trust that expert in that situation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on March 30, 2018.