The Psychology Behind Why We Can Never Trust Or Take Our Own Advice

by Alexia LaFata

When you coach a friend through a problem, it always seems like the solution is so easy.

Just ask him out! Just tell your friend you're upset! Just let your mother know you'd appreciate it if she wouldn't treat you like a child anymore!

We have no problem spewing these seemingly obvious pieces of advice to other people. The way people can't see what's right in front of them is almost frustrating.

If only they would do this exact thing, everything would turn out just fine! It's not that hard! It's really not! Just do it!

For some reason, though, when it comes to our own problems, all of this goes out the window. We freeze.

Our problems are not simple; they're complicated. Our solutions are not obvious; they need analyzing, and talking out, and weeding through, and time to process.

It doesn't matter how many other people upon whom we've bestowed our thoughtful, yet beautifully simplified wisdom or how many other people we've helped through the exact same problem. 

No matter how hard we try and how much we desperately want to, we simply can't take our own goddamn advice.

Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, best-selling author and advice columnist for The Wall Street Journal told New York Magazine that it's all about perspective.

When we're entrenched in our own personal problems, he said, our judgment gets clouded by our emotional attachment to the situation.

We become distracted by our own thoughts and feelings about our issue, all of which stop us from looking at it rationally.

But when we help someone else through their problems, we have less emotional investment than they do.

This mean we can help them successfully muddle through all the bullsh*t they're dealing with and offer a rational, more streamlined solution.

Ariely said,

When we are in a particular situation, we take lots of irrelevant factors into account. But when we’re external to it, we sometimes look at things more objectively.

To drive this point home, Ariel referenced a study he conducted during which he asked participants if, after a doctor gave them a medical diagnosis, they would go to a second doctor for a second opinion.

Most people in his study said no, mainly because they didn't want to offend the first doctor.

However, when the participants were asked if they'd go to a second person for a second opinion, they said yes.

Ariely said that this outcome -- in which we place more value on the advice of someone who isn't really involved in the same or as similar of a situation as we are -- applies to a variety of situations, like getting your heart broken:

When you’re in love, you can’t imagine the situation will ever change. So you keep on thinking to yourself, I will always feel this way.  But when somebody else sees you from the outside, they can say, This is right, or This is wrong, or Don’t do it, because they’re not infatuated. They can see things from a more objective way.

When it comes to finding solutions for a problem, we're also more likely to rationalize our problems by placing the blame on external circumstances and, contrarily, to rationalize other people's problems by placing the blame on their inner personality traits.

In other words, we're reluctant to take a good, hard look at ourselves -- but we have no problem forcing other people to do it.

As psychologist Hal Hershfield said to New York Magazine, “If I trip on the sidewalk, it must’ve been uneven, but if you trip, you’re clumsy.”

When we hesitate to look inward to find solutions for a problem, two major things happen: one, we don't hold ourselves responsible for solving the problem, which makes the problem last longer; and two, we don't take any of our own advice to solve said problem, mainly because we haven't consulted ourselves at all.

We tend to place the blame on everyone but ourselves.

If the kind of advice we give other people involves helping them analyze themselves, then it's probably actually good, insightful, straight-to-the-point advice. So why shouldn't we do ourselves the same justice?

The next time you find yourself giving advice to a friend in need, be aware of how that advice might help you one day.

If you gave yourself the same tough love that you'd give someone else, perhaps you'll solve your problems faster than you think -- and perhaps you'll realize that, yes, the solution really is that simple.