Four Scopes of Advice

There's a very common failure mode people fall into where they'll ask for 'advice on doing something', receive excellent advice, and fail to follow it. For a long time this was mysterious to me. Then a friend provided a possible explanation that completely changed how I look at it. As I explained to my friend, the problem isn't that the person giving advice isn't trustworthy, quite often the person asking wants the advice and trusts the opinion of the person giving it. So why don't they follow it? My friend hypothesized that people let their identity get mixed up in how they wanted to do the thing, and then can't bring themselves to do it another way. Essentially his hypothesis is that they're being asked to change too much. This seems plausible enough, but it got me thinking more broadly about what scope of advice people are looking for when they ask.

To start we can imagine four modes of planning, divided thusly:

The hierarchy of willingness to take advice then is basically a mirror image of this.

The takeaway for you dear reader is that you should try to be cognizant of what kind of advice you're looking for. To get better advice it may help to explicitly communicate your preference to the person you're soliciting from. You're liable to make your peers quite angry if they give you solid strategic advice and you persist in the same basic inoptimal tactics towards your goals.

Commenting on all this, my friend adds the following caveat:

Sometimes, someone asks you for advice of level N. However, what you know, and what the one who asks you either does not know or does not want to acknowledge, is that no advice of level N will suffice, for their situation; the flaw in their approach is on level N+1.

(Example: “The wheels aren’t holding the car up; what sort of bolt should I use to ensure that they hold?” —when the problem is that the car has three wheels instead of four; no kind of bolt will fix that problem.)

Such cases are difficult. You know that no advice you give on level N will work, but no advice you give on level N+1 will be accepted.

Being open to being told that this is the case, is, I think, a critical part of being rational.