Penn psychology professor Angela Duckworth—best known for her work on Grit—was pleasantly surprised when PhD student Lauren Eskreis-Winkler came to her with a creative new idea: What if the best way to help someone develop grit was to have them advise other people on this very question?
It was a totally counter-intuitive concept. Usually when we want to help someone accomplish a goal, we give them all kinds of advice. Surely, we think, they must be missing some essential knowledge, and this ignorance is standing in their way. But Eskreis-Winkler had a different idea about why people don’t do what’s in their best interest—and it’s not always that they don’t know how. Duckworth was hooked and collaborated on research proving that by teaching, we learn.
Wharton professor Katy Milkman interviewed Duckworth in a recent episode of her podcast, Choiceology, which explores how behavioral economics can help people make smarter decisions in their everyday lives. The following is an excerpt from their interview about this fascinating new research.
Milkman: Can you tell us about where this idea came from? What made you think that giving advice might actually help the advisor?
Duckworth: Well, the credit for the idea of advice-giving really goes to Lauren Eskries-Winkler who was a graduate student with me. When she had this idea, we were studying grit and we asked each other, “How do you increase grit?” She came back to me with the idea that if you want people to be gritty you should get them to give advice to other people about how to be gritty. It was counterintuitive because you don’t tell people any new information. You don’t give them any tips or hacks. You just tell them to give other people advice. The idea that people could unlock information or wisdom inside themselves without being given anything, and then improve their motivation [and] performance, I thought was really intriguing.
Milkman: That’s really interesting. How did you and Lauren study this?
Duckworth: Lauren’s first research was asking kids to give advice to even younger kids about how to do better in school, how to stay motivated after a bad grade, etc. She found really promising results that giving advice improved these kids’ motivation in school. She then moved on to smoking and weight loss. The generality of the effect is what I find most intriguing. We found that advice-giving helps kids, and we found that it helps smokers trying to quit smoking.
What’s more, we didn’t find a huge amount of, “Oh, advice-giving works for this subgroup, but not for that subgroup.” Many of the behavioral interventions that have been found to work only work on a certain subgroup [of people]. That we didn’t find this for advice-giving suggests to me that we can all benefit. There’s that adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” but maybe it’s really that when I say to do something in a certain way, I follow suit.
Milkman: Could you tell me about why you think advice-giving changes the behavior of the advisor?
Duckworth: Say I give you advice about not procrastinating on your writing, and I say, “You know, Katy, one thing that really helps me is if I break a big goal into little goals or even tiny goals like, ‘Work on this paper for one minute.’” That’s a goal that anybody could do. Now, when I share that piece of advice with you: Well, for one thing, I’ve now done a little bit more processing and reflection than if you hadn’t asked me for my advice. Secondly, I’ve drawn attention in this advice-giving process to the things that are under my control.
When you give advice to another person, you’re not going to say anything like, “Well, your husband’s going to want breakfast [and that will delay your day].” It’s in the nature of advice-giving itself that we focus on things other people can change. And in so doing, of course, we’re also focusing on things we ourselves can change. And actually, that gets to a very related mechanism: confidence. When I give you advice about how you can do better, I indirectly motivate myself. I increase my own confidence in part, I think, because I’ve realized, ‘Oh, these are things that I have control over as opposed to things I don’t have control over.’
Finally, there’s a matter of cognitive dissonance. So if I advise you to break down big goals into smaller goals and to not procrastinate, and then the next time my own deadline looms and I end up watching reruns of Games of Thrones instead of doing my work, I’ll experience dissonance. It’s very uncomfortable having said one thing and then engaging in the exact opposite behavior. Human beings, including myself, don’t like this inconsistency.
Milkman: Thanks so much for walking us through that. Could you talk a bit about how you actually prompted people to give advice to others in the studies you’ve run with Lauren Eskreis-Winkler about this?
Duckworth: For kids, we’ll often say, “There are kids one grade below you.” So if you’re a ninth grader, you’re thinking about an eight grader. If you’re an eight grader, you’re thinking about a seventh grader. Then we say, “These people are struggling. And because you’re a little bit ahead of the game, we would like you to share your advice with them.”
Now, if it’s students you give them very specific questions about procrastinating or staying motivated after a bad grade. Those prompts would change if you were talking to a smoker or to a dieter, but it’s the same frame: “What advice would you give as someone who has struggled with this same exact problem?”
You can do it with multiple choice questions, like, “Which of the following ideas do you think is the best advice?” But I think open-ended prompts where you say, “How would you advise someone who’s struggling to get their work done?” are especially powerful.
And I think an important part of this phenomenon is that when you’re put in that position, with someone saying, “Could you help somebody else? They’re a little younger than you, or they’re struggling, but you’re a little farther along in the path,” it implicitly puts you in a position of higher status. But imagine the opposite. Someone comes to you and says, “Katy, can I help you?” That implies that you need help and is a lower status position. I think that subtle shift in roles is part of the magic of this little prompt.
Milkman: So how can people use advice-giving to help them make better decisions?
Duckworth: Well, first let me tell you how I’ve used it. I have two daughters. They’re teenagers. One’s a junior and one is a sophomore. Like a lot of kids their age, they have a lot of pressure in school and, recently, I could see an episode of high stress and anxiety unfolding. With just the gentlest of prompts, I encouraged one of my daughters to give advice to the other about how not to be stressed out about a disappointing grade.
The daughter who gave the advice told her sister, “I know it really seems like the end of the world, but if you look at your final grade, it’s not that bad. Maybe it’s a good thing to not have everything perfect so that when we go to college we don’t freak out over the first bad thing that happens.” And I could see the ripple. I sensed that being the therapist and not the patient gave my older daughter her own perspective and a little confidence about managing the stresses in her own life.
I think there’s a lesson here for leadership. If you want the weakest person on your team to improve, your impulse would probably be to shower them with advice, and that’s not entirely the wrong move, because they might need to know things that they don’t know. But I wonder what the effect would be if you take that weak link on your team and to ask them to mentor a new person. What we might unlock there is a confidence that had previously not been realized and intuitions that had not been carried out.
In terms of helping ourselves, one thing is just to be reminded that we actually know things that we’re not using. So if I’m struggling with a problem, I could hypothetically ask myself, ‘Well, if it were Katy who was struggling, what would I say to her?’”