Study: Advice Giving And Power Motivation

Power generation (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L. Swanson

“the desire to feel powerful motivates advice giving”

That’s the conclusion of a study titled “Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power” [fn. 1].

Is that a Negative?

Hmmmm . . . somehow, that conclusion doesn’t sound like a compliment. I’m not sure what to think about it: 

  • As an attorney, advice-giving is my stock in trade—it’s not only what I do, it’s the essence of what’s required by my profession; and
  • As a mediator, I give advice all the time about the mediation process and how to utilize it.

Maybe the study’s authors are talking about giving unsolicited advice?

Medical Profession

By contrast to legal professionals, medical professionals are averse to giving advice: they rarely advise on choosing among alternative courses of treatment. 

Doctors simply refuse to give such advice.  “I try to keep right down the middle on which treatment alternative to choose,” is a common advice-avoiding comment from a physician. 

Does that make them better people under the motivation-to-power pejorative? 

–An Illustration

Here’s an illustration of advice-avoiding from a physician (sorry about too-much-information).

Many years ago, I’m in a hospital bed with a kidney stone—heavily medicated.  The Doctor says, “You have a choice between, (i) going in and removing it, or (ii) waiting for it to pass—and it will pass sooner or later.”  Here’s how the ensuing conversation goes:

  • Me:  “Which do you recommend?”
  • Doc:  “You must make your own choice.”
  • Me:  “On what basis do I make the choice?”
  • Doc.  “That’s your decision to make.”
  • Me:  “Ok . . . if it were you in my position, what would you do?”
  • Doc.  “I don’t know.”
  • Me:  “If I were to choose . . . let’s say, waiting for it to pass?”
  • Doc:  “That would be an excellent choice.”
  • Me:  I’m thinking, “What?!  Are you, a waiter taking my order or something?”

So, I chose to wait for the stone to pass on its own.  Three heavily-medicated days later, it does.

Two months later, I’m talking to an anesthesiologist friend.  I relate the foregoing story to him.  Whereupon, he says, “You should have taken it out!”

To which I respond, “Where were you when I needed you!  And why didn’t the Doctor tell me that?”

So . . . doctors are not motivated by a desire for power, because they refuse to give advice?


According to the study, my advice-giving profession means I am motivated by a desire for power?  

Regardless, I have no choice but to continue giving advice . . . because that’s what my profession requires.


Footnote 1: This study is by Michael Schaefer, Leigh Tost and Li Huang, and is published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 44(5) (January 2018).

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