1) Future readers: It's worth remembering that http://lesswrong.com/lw/ia/... came before this post, and this post is in the context of it.

2) There *are* some "What To" books with billions of readers, and proponents. However they seem to be centralized into a few well-believed books, such as The Holy Bible, and The Qur'an. Perhaps there's something implicit in this 'What To' book idea that lends itself to old actionable statements being hard to rid one's self of.

3) Going further than Kenny Easwaran goes, I wonder if the possible feedback mechanisms possible in any particular media determine the status games involved in asking for/giving/receiving "what to" data. Books are intrinsically more difficult to give feedback on than blog posts, and both are more intrinsically difficult to give feedback on than some kinds of new media that is specifically dedicated to feedback.

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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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"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.

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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.

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

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Google reports

920,000,000 pages for "how to"


141,000,000 for "what to".

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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!

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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.

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