Why People Don’t Follow Advice

I’m going to broadly paint a picture — there are three types of people: Those who seek advice and don’t follow it, those who do follow it, and those who immediately tense up when it’s offered (usually unsolicited). I am part of the latter.

As soon as you start trying to solve my problem with your own advice I feel tightness in my throat. I feel like you are putting me in a box and don’t really understand who I am. I am not being seen. Am I defensive? Am I stubborn? Am I unwilling? No. I just know that I’m the only one who knows the answer to solving my problem.

Then there are those who actively seek advice but never follow it. You know who I’m talking about because you’ve given them advice only to be frustrated when they complain to you about the same damn problem next week. It seems like all they really want to do is complain but not do anything about it, right?

Giving advice, unless you are a consultant, is usually a waste of your time and a disservice to others.

It is easy to be fooled into believing you are providing value when you give advice to someone and they follow through successfully. But are they being empowered? I don’t think so.

Those who do follow advice are the red herrings because they make you feel good.

It loosely reminds me of the quote, “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” It will be short lived because they haven’t internalized it as their own.

I recently read Tim Ferris’s book “The Four Hour Body” and in it he explains that busy executives want him to write, on one index card, what they need to do to eliminate belly fat. So he did. The success rate was an extremely impressive 0%.

If we know what we need to change to solve our problems, why don’t we just do it? It’s really very simple — we won’t change until we own who we want to be.

In the book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, the author, Dr. Robert Cialdini, shares the “unsettling success” the Chinese had in getting American POWs to collaborate with the Communist Chinese during the Korean War. Rather than being harsh punishers, they had a sophisticated “leniency” program. They succeeded in changing the American’s hearts and minds, beliefs and attitudes and to cause doubt America’s role in the Korean War.

One tactic stood out to me — a writing contest the Chinese held on a premise cited in the book:

“Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like, look closely at his actions. …the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes.”

With this in mind, it was never, ever enough for POWs to listen to rhetoric or even to agree verbally with the Chinese. They had to write so there was irrefutable proof of their action. If he wouldn’t write freely, he was asked to copy it and even though it seemed harmless, it meant he could not deny writing it and the Chinese could use it as propaganda.

The Chinese took it further by regularly holding political essay contests. The prizes were small, by design — a few cigarettes or a bit of fruit — but scarce enough that they were sought by the men. Most of the time the man who was solidly pro-Communist won, but occasionally they awarded the prize to to essays that supported the United States with one or two, seemingly modest, concessions to the Chinese view such as “The United States is not perfect”.

This tactic encouraged the men to engage in high numbers because they realized they could win without compromising their allegiance to their country. However, they began to shade their essays towards communism to increase their chances. It may have seemed harmless but it created commitment and ultimately collaboration in the form of propaganda statements, informing on fellow POWs of escape plans and positive views of Communism when being interviewed upon their return to the United States.

Why did they offer small prizes? Dr. Robert Cialdini puts it best by explaining,

“We accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it.”

This is clearly a startling use of internalizing change, but its effectiveness can’t be denied.

This is why I so firmly believe in Co-Active coaching — I do not offer advice or judgment of what’s right for that person. They already know but often have trouble accessing the answers. My job is only to guide them to their answers and empower them to take action to become who they want to be.

Suzanne adores animals and is deeply fulfilled by authentic connection with people. She chose life coaching to empower others to increase their fulfillment through finding their purpose.


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