How To Vs. What To

When should you seek decision advice?  One factor is decision size: the bigger the decision, the more effort you should devote, including effort to get advice.  Oddly, on our biggest decisions, other people seem to go out of their way to offer us advice that we don’t want to hear or follow.  We rarely seek out advice, and when we do it is usually on much smaller decisions. 

For example, we like HowTo books, but not WhatTo books.  How to manage your computer, not what machine to manage.  How to please your partner, not what partner to please.  How to fix your house, not where to live.  How to drive fast, not what speed to drive.  How to get promoted, not what job to work at.  How to raise your kids, not how many kids to raise.  And so on.

One reason we avoid getting advice is that it lowers our status relative to those who give advice.  Of course this is also makes asking for advice a good way to flatter and supplicate.  Not sure if this explains the puzzle though.  But all this doesn’t seem to bode well for fielding decision markets on the biggest organizational decisions. 

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  • michael vassar

    Robin: There are surely more books on what job to work at than on how to get promoted. “What computer to get” books would involve strong presumptions of bias. Plenty of heated argument on it on the web though. Most of the rest of those hypothetical books involve complex enough questions that their advice would be suspect as being too broad a generalization or too un-PC or weird. Such questions are probably also best answered not with surface answers but by examining the underlying questions for how to make good decisions.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    “Oddly, on our biggest decisions, other people seem to go out of their way to offer us advice that we don’t want to hear or follow. We rarely seek out advice, and when we do it is usually on much smaller decisions.”

    Based only on anecdotal evidence, I think that is quite simply incorrect.

    To follow up on Michaels comment, the examples you give are mostly on questions concerning which the potential advisee is in a much better position to judge than the potential adviser. The most important determinant of whether you should marry person X is whether you love that person; who am I to tell you whether you do? If you get beat up by your fiancee regularly, that’s a different matter.

  • http://web.mac.com/redbird/ Gordon Worley

    Robin said: “One reason we avoid getting advice is that it lowers our status relative to those who give advice. Of course this is also makes asking for advice a good way to flatter and supplicate. Not sure if this explains the puzzle though. But all this doesn’t seem to bode well for fielding decision markets on the biggest organizational decisions.”

    One way to test if this assertion is true is to look at differences in advice seeking between men and women. If the theory is true, we should expect to see more men giving advice and refusing to accept advice from others than women.

  • Silas

    We rarely seek out advice, and when we do it is usually on much smaller decisions.

    Like Lemmusx2 suggested, there are notable counterexamples, but I think this broadly holds. One common thought I have is, “I spend this much time deciding between cracker and hair-care product varieties. How much time do I spend deciding what I can do to make the world a better place?”

    About your other point: How to manage your computer, not what machine to manage.

    You can take this back an arbitrary number of steps:

    -what processes are worth automating
    -what processes actually work toward my ultimate goals
    -what goals should I have

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    “But all this doesn’t seem to bode well for fielding decision markets on the biggest organizational decisions.”

    As one who has started such a market in her firm, let me dare disagree from a practical level. I found I achieved quick success in opening my market when I tied the contracts to items on which executives were compensated. Since most business people today are compensated based on fact-based metrics, anything that can offer a numerical metric or benchmark other accepted metrics does well. Thus markets become in the naked self-interest of executives and escape any social status issues.

  • Gary

    Interestingly, there is a book called “How to Read and Why” by literary critic Harold Bloom.

    If you read the book, you would quickly realize that it should be named “What to Read and Why”. It is a list of some of the great books of literature, and the reasons that made them great. Nothing about it really explains the “how”. I think it was probably renamed by the editors because of the reasons you listed above (sounds pretentious and condescending, even though Harold Bloom is probably the guy you would WANT to tell you what to read).

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robyn’s Law: The tougher a problem is, the faster people propose a solution to it.

    Robin’s Corollary: The more important a decision is, the less information people want.

    The obvious bias here would be need-for-closure leading to rejection of information that might introduce ambiguity; or perhaps pursuit of defensibility leading to one-reason decision-making.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Important decisions you have to make might also strongly effect people around you, and they might seek to influence you to suit their own interests rather than your own. With small decisions, people around you have less at stake.

    Ask a friend whether you should get married, take a job in another city, or work for a promotion, and you might get an answer that suits his interests more than yours. “Don’t marry man. You’ll be unhappy!” Translation: I want to keep my friend a bachelor so we can still party.

    “What sort of house should I buy?” “Oh, my brother-in-law has a great place you’d love.” Compare these situations to “What should I have for dinner?” “I dunno, pizza maybe?” There’s no strong interest to turn you in a wrong direction.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Robin put his ideas into practice on this issue a few years ago, asking widely for advice as to how he should spend the next several years of his academic life. He received quite a range of responses, which that page summarizes, weighted in different ways. Interestingly, the rank ordering of the various options does not change much with the different weightings. The most popular suggestions were for him to write a book on either the various disagreement-impossibility results, or idea futures. I remember I suggested that he start a blog!

  • Evelyn

    Google reports

    920,000,000 pages for “how to”

    and

    141,000,000 for “what to”.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Lemmus and Michael, all decisions have some value component. Value may be a larger fraction of bigger decisions, but the fact part is still plenty large enough to justify getting advice.

    Mike, yes bigger decisions elicit more lobbying, but even so it should be worth getting more advice.

    Eliezer, yes, Robyn’s observation is very related.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/pudge/ pudge

    The more important the decision, the LESS I will seek advice on what to do, for a very simple reason: it’s my decision, and no one else’s.

    I don’t want, or need, advice on What to do. I seek information from others. I seek their experiences, their knowledge, their wisdom. But NOT their advice. Once I have made MY decision for What to do, I gladly accept advice on How to do it.

    It has nothing to do with status relative to anyone. It has to do with the fact that the buck stops with me. I never asked anyone what school I should go to, what job I should take, who I should marry, whether I should get married, when or whether I should have kids. These are my decisions (or decisions of me and my partner together), and there is *absolutely no reason* for me/us to ask anyone for advice on What to do. We are perfectly capable of collecting information and making our own decision without anyone else’s direction one way or another.

    I have no idea where this “should” comes from in “bigger decisions should be worth getting more advice.” Says who?

  • Wendy Collings

    It seems to me we get What To advice all the time, unasked for. Advertising tells us what products and services we should buy. Government tells us what speed to drive, whether it’s better to increase or decrease the population, what recreational drugs are okay, etc. Much What Not To Do advice gets turned into law. Religion tells us what morals to have. Politicians tell us what’s good for the country. Reviewers tell us what plays or movies to watch, what products or services in their category we should choose. Go for a walk, and the crosswalk signal will tell you when to cross the road. Walk. Don’t walk. No wonder we don’t want too many What To books.

  • Nanani

    It sounds like there needs to be a more precice definition of “advice”. What is the distinction between seeking out another person’s experiences, wisdom and information versus their advice? If that information is going to affect your decision, why isn’t it advice?

    Rationally speaking, more information SHOULD influence your decision. The key point here is determining whether the new information is valid, ie unbiased and true to reality.

  • Grant

    This one is easy.

    Deciding what to do is far simpler than deciding how to do it. Its also a lot harder for others to offer sound advice on what someone should do vs. how they should do it, since only the later is based off of objective data.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    “Lemmus and Michael, all decisions have some value component. Value may be a larger fraction of bigger decisions, but the fact part is still plenty large enough to justify getting advice.”

    Robin, I didn’t say that the “value component” is bigger with bigger decisions (which may be true), I said that your examples were skewed.

    To stick with the example, I may have a friend who knows about the correlations between marriage and happiness (and let’s face it, such people are rare), but this information is almost completely irrelevant if I want to make my mind up about whether I should marry a specific person.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “One reason we avoid getting advice is that it lowers our status relative to those who give advice. Of course this is also makes asking for advice a good way to flatter and supplicate. Not sure if this explains the puzzle though. But all this doesn’t seem to bode well for fielding decision markets on the biggest organizational decisions.”

    I think you may have hit upon a (primate aesthetic) social barrier to the adoption of decision markets: Many people seem keyed to award alpha status to those who make decisions using an unerring gut, not to those who consult the best topic experts and resources available to make decisions.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja

    1. While all decisions have a value component, ‘what to’ decisions are more directly tied to subjective questions than ‘how to’ decisions are. Both are actually the same thing, but on different levels in a chain of purposes.

    At some point you have purely subjective values, e.g. societal happiness. You then have the question of how to achieve them. This might be called a ‘what to’ question (what should I do with my life?) but really it is just ‘how to’ achieve some higher goal. You might decide the best way is to work toward ending third world poverty. This is then ‘what’ you are doing, and there is a new ‘how to’ question. And so on. ‘How to’ is always further from underlying purely subjective value judgements, so is less dependent on subjective input (once you’ve figured out what, how is more practical) and more generalisable (not person/situation specific) because the problem is made more specific (it’s easier to write a general account of how to make a cake than how to enjoy your afternoon, because in the former the value judgements have mostly already been dealt with in deciding that you should make a cake, and the problem is more specific).

    While below the top level there shouldn’t be any subjectivity (only uncertainty about whether that is the most effective way to increase worldwide happiness), you must still take into account your own talents and experience and position, so the decision making involves a high input of personal information as well as of values.

    2. Also it is more obvious, and thus embarrassing, if you err in a minor purpose; there are specific ways to achieve, say, a cake, so there is an incentive to inform yourself well enough. Larger decisions more closely tied to ultimate goals can be stuffed up endlessly and rationalised. E.g. if you can’t drive a car it’s pretty obvious, but if you decide not to buy a car, who can say it’s a misjudgement?

    3. There are plenty of books and other advice givers on what society or the government should do at a higher level. e.g. absolve third world debt, save the whales, have a negative income tax. Why is this? I suspect because people assume they know what society’s higher goals and capabilities are as well as anyone else.

    4. Probably ‘what to’ questions are posed as how to questions because they can’t tell you what you should do, but only how to figure out what you should do (as you have to apply it to your own situation and preferences). e.g. ‘how to choose which man’ answers the same question as ‘which man to choose’, but better to be given general instruction than told to choose George.

    Sorry if this is inadequately explained – I have to leave.

  • Torben

    Maybe because ‘how-to’ experts really are experts as opposed to ‘what-to’ shmexperts? Such as brain surgeon vs. clinical psychologist/self-help therapist.

  • http://www.fashion-incubator.com Kathleen

    One way to test if this assertion is true is to look at differences in advice seeking between men and women. If the theory is true, we should expect to see more men giving advice and refusing to accept advice from others than women.

    This made me laugh out loud. Do we even need to test this? I think it’s been proven empirically if not anecdotally.

  • Mason

    “One reason we avoid getting advice is that it lowers our status relative to those who give advice.”

    Just a small weak counter; because of this I often view people who seek out advice as being of higher status b/c they don’t let the fear of lower their status interfer with making better choices.

  • http://antimeta.wordpress.com Kenny Easwaran

    Maybe you’re right about advice books, but as someone else pointed out, these sorts of decisions tend to call for much more customized advice. I think people are much more likely to ask friends for advice on whether they should keep seeing someone they’re going out with, than to ask friends for advice on where to go to dinner this evening.

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