Science is a culture of information exchange, from the top to the bottom. Sometimes we are simply presenting the information, such as in seminars or papers, but most of the time the information changes hands as advice, solicited or unsolicited. Obviously this occurs most often between labmates, but also between scientists within the same department, via e-mail or at conferences between scientists at different institutions, or on websites like this one.

One of the most interesting aspects of this, for me at least, is watching the dynamics of advice solicitation, dispense, and the resulting action. Obviously, certain people are asked for advice because they have developed a reputation for being knowledgeable and approachable, but for every person that becomes that go-to guy or girl, there is another who is equally accomplished and personable whom people largely avoid seeking advice from. Even worse, there are those whom people actively avoid talking about any problem they are having in front of, just to avoid unsolicited advice.

Insight from the experts
A paper examining the value that recipients placed on different types of advice that they received may shed some light on this, as well as enlightening us on the best way we can help others in the future. Normally I would like to read the original paper rather than a summary of it, but unfortunately I don’t have access to it, and it may be better to have an expert in the field boil the work down for us anyway. At Psychology Today, Art Markman summarizes the work of Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio.

“[The study] distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.

Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation. (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews. You aren’t recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision… They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and asked how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision.

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree. However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies.”

When I read this, I thought about the advice that the go-to people that I’ve known dispense versus the less favored sources, and my experiences are very consistent with this finding. One of the most interesting interpretations about why Information was the most valued is because it allows the recipient to maintain independence in the decision making process. I found this particularly striking in the context of laboratory culture, since a career in science tends to select some fairly strong and independent personalities. In my experience, most the people whose advice was avoided tended to try to help others by telling them what to do in no uncertain terms rather than allowing them to decide what to do.

Implications for lab dynamics
Another aspect of this that wasn’t discussed is the social implications of the decision of the recipient to follow or not to follow the advice. If you ask somebody for advice and they only give you information, then there is little or no awkwardness afterwards when they ask you what you ultimately decided to do. However, it can be uncomfortable to tell somebody that emphatically evangelized one option over another that you went against their advice. After one of these interactions, you aren’t quick to mention any problems you are having around the now-disgruntled labmate.

By extension, dispensing advice heavily advocating one option over another sets you up for feeling disrespected if the recipient of your advice chooses a different path than the one you advocated. If you routinely hand out this type of advice, your coworkers may start to avoid asking for your input, making you feel disrespected or under-appreciated and socially isolating you from the group.

Implications for training
In addition to these issues, I think there can be a strong argument made for simply dispensing information when asked for advice from a training perspective as well. Part of making a decision is the exploration of the options – in science this often means acquiring detailed knowledge of the mechanisms of options A and B (and C, and D, etc), along with their advantages and shortcomings. If a young trainee is simply told to use protocol A, then this exploration is short-circuited, and little of that knowledge is attained. In addition, a social pattern starts to become established in which the trainee becomes trained to ask for direction rather than thinking for themselves, stunting their development as a scientist.

What do you think? In retrospect, what was the advice method employed by your most valued mentor?