What do you do when you can’t figure out how to finish a tricky task at work? Or you’re lost on those back roads? Or you’re trying a new DIY project in your house and just can’t seem to make it look like the photo that inspired you on Pinterest? In life, when you’re stuck in a conundrum, there are many solutions. For example, you could invest more time and effort by brainstorming alternative approaches, using trial-and-error (until you get that paint line just right), or looking up tricks of the trade online.
But there is one thing most people know to avoid for sure: asking for advice. It’s inconsiderate—we don’t want to bother others. After all, they have their own problems to solve. Also, they may not have the answer we need anyway. These reasons may or may not be true. But we are pretty sure that people will think less of us. So, good reasons or no, we don’t ask.
However, our research suggests that the instinct to not seek advice is wrong. Fears about appearing incompetent by asking for advice—though extremely common—are sorely misplaced. Here’s why: when you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they actually think you’re smarter. By asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the advisor’s ego and can gain valuable insights. In their minds, advisors actually think, “I’m brilliant (of course), so this guy’s smart for asking for my advice.”
This finding is important because seeking advice encourages information exchange, learning, and meaningful connection between us and our friends and colleagues. In addition, there is an additional side benefit: asking for advice allows us to make a surprisingly positive impression on our mentors.
Here is how we uncovered this finding. In one study, together with our colleague Maurice Schweitzer at Wharton, we asked 199 students to complete a “challenging brain teaser” that consisted of seven IQ test questions. We told half of the students that they would be paid $1 for each correct answer. We told the other half that they would be paid based on a partner’s rating of their competence on a scale from 1 to 7 and would earn $1 for each point on the rating scale.
Before completing the brain teaser, participants could send a message to their partner, who had purportedly completed the brain teaser earlier in the study. We asked the participants to choose one of the following messages:
Send an advice-seeking message: “Hey, can you give me any advice?”
Send no message.
Send a neutral greeting: “Hey, I hope you did well.”
The result? Participants who were paid based on their accuracy alone were more than twice as likely to seek advice than were participants incentivized to make a good impression, 73.5% versus 32.7% sought advice. In other words, people were less likely to seek advice when they were focused on appearing competent in the eyes of their partner.
In another study, we shifted to focus on the impressions advice seekers actually make by collecting data from the perspective of the advisor. We told 170 students that they would be matched with an anonymous partner in the same room. In reality, the “partner” was a computer-simulated actor. Participants had to complete a brain teaser under time pressure, and were told that their partner would complete the same brain teaser later in the study. After the participants completed the brain teaser, they received one of the following two messages from their partner: “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or “I hope it went well.” After receiving this message, participants evaluated their partner’s competence and indicated how likely they would be to ask their partner for advice on a similar problem-solving task.
Participants who were asked for advice rated their partner higher on competence. Also, participants who were asked for advice reported that they would be more likely to ask their partner for advice on a similar task in the future. Thus, in contrast to lay beliefs, being asked for advice increased rather than decreased judgments of the advice-seeker’s competence.
As we found in follow-up studies, a request for advice flatters the advisor and increases her self-confidence, which in turn boosts her positive perceptions of the advice seeker. After all, people enjoy flattery, even when it is insincere. In one series of studies, Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta (Hong Kong University) found that people who were given a printed advertisement from a department store that complimented their sense of fashion had higher opinions of the store. This effect was boosted after people engaged in self-criticism but nullified after they engaged in self-affirmation, suggesting that flattery—even if it’s patently false—is especially effective on people who are down on their luck.
Asking for advice is an effective strategy not only when we are facing a difficult task. In one study, researchers Katie A. Liljenquist and Adam A. Galinsky had MBA students engage in a simulated performance review. When those playing the role of a junior manager received a surprisingly negative performance review and asked for advice on how to improve, those playing their bosses considered them to be more likable and competent than those who did not ask for advice. Similarly, Liljenquist and Galinsky found that when facing conflict in negotiations, asking your counterpart for advice increases perspective taking, thus leading to quicker and more likely resolutions of the conflict.
Another unfounded assumption is the fear that we will ask for advice and the person will refuse, leaving us embarrassed. Research by Frank Flynn and Vanessa Bohns suggests that we tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance. In their studies, Flynn and Bohns instructed participants to ask favors in campus settings after estimating how many people they thought would comply with their requests. The type of favors included borrowing strangers’ cell phones in order to make calls back to the experimenter, soliciting individuals to fill out questionnaires, and asking students to help them find the campus gym and walking with them for at least two blocks towards the gym. Participants estimated that they would have to ask 50 percent more people than they actually needed to ask.
To be sure, the power of advice seeking has limits. For example, in one of our follow-up studies, we asked people to identify areas of personal strength and weakness such as their knowledge of sports, musical instruments, and geography. Next, an experimenter approached them for advice in their area of self-identified weakness. The self-identified non-experts were perplexed by these advice requests and viewed the advice seeker as less competent for asking for their help. This makes sense: you cannot stroke someone’s ego when they are 100% sure they are not knowledgeable about a topic. However, in a final study, even asking for advice on a very easy task—though it did not increase judgments of competence—did not harm evaluations either. Asking for advice is not nearly as risky an endeavor as we tend to think.