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Why We Feel the Need to Give Advice When We Haven’t Been Asked

If you find people smile and nod at you a lot, you should probably read this

No matter what you do, someone always thinks they know how to do it better. Whether it’s a DIY project, chopping vegetables or raising your child, you will be monitored by others who are primed to step in and let you know you’re doing it wrong. “Next time you should use a spirit level” (in reference to your DIY); “You know you’re supposed to cut lengthwise, not across” (both vegetables and DIY); “It’s all looking a bit lumpy. You really should get a professional involved” (vegetables, DIY and child-rearing).

There are other areas, too, in which self-appointed mentors see fit to jump in and offer their well-meaning but ultimately spirit-trampling advice. So many other areas. Your relationships, your finances, your career, any sort of route-planning (especially if it involves city subway systems) are always fair game, even if it’s just to point out that, “Hey, did you know there’s an app for that?”

We all know how deeply annoying it is to be on the receiving end of drive-by wisdom, so why can’t we stop ourselves from interfering?

According to Bay Area psychology writer and career coach Marty Nemko, gratuitous advice is often motivated by a genuine interest in helping, but comes with both a selfish desire to prove ourselves useful or important, plus an irresistible impulse to show off. “It’s the same as the way a good pianist loves to play for others, a good writer to write and an expert to opine,” says Nemko.

Occasionally, though, what sound like helpful suggestions on the surface may be coming from a darker place. Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, says that in contrast with well-meaning show-offs, interference can sometimes come from “folks who are more narcissistic, assertive and aggressive; busybodies; and those with poor impulse control. Also, people who don’t have much perceived control in their own lives like to control the lives of others.”

Additionally, some experts see chronic advice dispensers as acting on an urge to compete with the recipients of their insight. In these cases, says Plante, the advice-givers “are trying to demonstrate their dominance or superior understanding of things. Their hearts are not in the right place.” This might be part of the reason why being offered unsolicited advice can leave you feeling so sour: Subconsciously, we’re picking up on the fact that we’ve just been thrust down a rung in the hierarchy.

Another reason it rankles so much might have to do with an effect known to psychologists as reactance theory. The idea, first proposed by American psychologist Jack Brehm in 1966, is that people are more likely to reject proposals or gifts whenever it feels like their freedom is being threatened in some way. “In getting advice from others,” explains Plante, “we often perceive it as an affront to our freedoms to do as we wish. We also don’t like being told that our path or our decisions are misguided or wrong.” This dynamic, says Plante, is what makes sense of the otherwise perplexing fact that “while people like to tell others how to live their lives, they really don’t like hearing it.”

So how should we best handle unwelcome guidance — especially from relatives or friends who might be hurt if we simply ignored them? Offers Nemko: “I encourage recipients to assume the advice-giver’s motive is at least partly benevolence and to thank the advice-giver, then accept or reject the advice on its merits, not because of an emotional reaction.”

Sound advice.

That, for the record, we sought out.

Chris Bourn is the former head of global content at Time Out and a longtime writer and editor at Maxim. He last investigated whether we can avoid becoming our parents.

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