Some chapters of life attract advice. After a breakup, friends who are typically silent about your romances might urge you to get back on dating apps and block your ex on social media. Starting a family gives rise to opinions about prenatal vitamins and stroller brands; interviewing for a new job might prompt advice about salary negotiations and work-life balance.
Recently, I entered a suggestion-heavy era. A long relationship had ended, and I pondered leaving my job and moving to a different neighborhood. Suddenly, I was in need of input from others on how to find a new laundromat, enroll in health insurance as a freelancer, live alone and navigate online dating.
I wanted practical guidance that I could quickly put into effect in my life. But the immediate value of suggestions, I learned, wasn’t simply doing what others said. They can be a tool for self-discovery, a mirror to reflect on our beliefs and blind spots. Input from others elicits the opportunity to think something over. By determining if it is something we want, and if it matches our desires or values, we’re forced to name what our desires and values are in the first place.
As I became more receptive to advice, I stumbled on another person seeking suggestions in a surprising way.
In the fall, the University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard, who specializes in ancient philosophy and ethics and is known for her popular essays on philosophy, created a virtual suggestion box. Dr. Callard often receives suggestions on Twitter and wanted a centralized place to collect them. A link in her bio takes users to a Google form, prompting them to answer the question: “How should I improve?”
So far, Dr. Callard has received plenty of suggestions for what to read and write. Recently, she followed a suggestion to read a sermon by Herbert McCabe, the theologian, and said she liked its exploration of the relationship between prayer and self-knowledge.
“I view a suggestion as an occasion to consider something,” Dr. Callard said. “From the fact that somebody suggests something — that’s not a very strong reason to do anything. It’s at most a reason to think about something or it draws that issue to my attention.”
Her somewhat unconventional practice of seeking advice dates back hundreds of years. One of the first suggestion boxes was employed by Tokugawa Yoshimune, the Japanese shogun who ruled in the 16th century during a period of military dictatorship. Set up near the entrance of Edo Castle in 1721, the meyasubako, or petition box, would open three days a month for “advice that is beneficial to the shogun’s governance or reveals wrongful doings of civil servants,” according to a 2003 academic paper.
Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar, a 19th-century king in Persia, had a suggestion box-like system called, “sanduq-i ’adalat,” or “the box of justice,” in response to public criticism of the court’s ministers. In 1890, Daniel W. Voorhees, a U.S. Senator from Indiana, proposed starting a publication called “The Petition Box,” which would give any American a chance to make a suggestion.
Implicit in this practice is the idea that our actions might be improved by others and that their comments (and complaints) are worth listening to. Yet research shows that most of us ignore the guidance we get on how to make a decision or conduct ourselves, suggesting that advice may be more about the large thoughts it leads us to rather than the advice itself.
Studies on “advice utilization,” show that we have a stubborn relationship with accepting nudges. Even when we know little about a subject we are likely to ignore advice from experts, said Lyn Van Swol, a professor in communication science at the University of Madison Wisconsin.
In lab experiments, participants tend to privilege their own perspectives. This is called “egocentric advice discounting,” said Silvia Bonaccio, a professor of workplace psychology, who studies how advice is given, or ignored, in the workplace. Our own initial decisions or ideas act as an anchor and stop us from following advice.
This could be to our detriment. Finding a compromise between our own perspective and what an adviser is telling us generally improves accuracy, Dr. Van Swol said. In studies focusing on tasks with a right or wrong answer, like answering a trivia question or predicting the outcome of a football game, input from someone with expertise on the subject usually improves performance. Even conflicting advice — while a potential source of frustration — can be a good thing, Dr. Van Swol said, because it can lower our confidence and push someone to weigh decisions carefully. “People tend to be overconfident in their decisions, and overconfidence leads you to under-think things,” she said.
According to Thomas Schultze-Gerlach, an experimental social psychologist at Queen’s University Belfast, we should ignore advice only if it comes from people who are intentionally trying to lead us astray. In all other situations, suggestions can be valuable, he said.
But in life, advice doesn’t always come from people who know better, and there are rarely clear-cut answers. Outside of the lab, suggestions come to us much the same way they might land in a suggestion box: They can be original or repetitive, sympathetic or bossy, insightful or completely irrelevant.
Credit…Photo Illustration by Yasara Gunawardena for The New York Times
Dr. Callard has her own complicated feelings about welcoming advice from others. Before she made her suggestion box, she wrote an article for the online magazine The Pointcalled “Against Advice,” in which she argued that most advice is hollow and meaningless.
“You might say, ‘If you don’t believe in advice, why do you believe in suggestions?’ Which is a fair question,” she said.
Dr. Callard believes there’s a difference between suggestions, advice and instructions. Instructions tell you how to get something that you already know you want and is concrete: how to find a bus stop, how to assemble a piece of furniture, how to un-jam the copy machine. And mentorship, or coaching, she said, is less about advice-giving and more about building a relationship based on interpersonal knowledge. If Dr. Callard is mentoring a student, she can guide them toward their goals because of how much she knows about them.
“I view it as something more intimate and robust than advice,” she said.
The suggestion box process is about receiving random guesses about what we might enjoy, she says. Advice, on the other hand, Dr. Callard views as coming from someone who purports to be in a position to know what you should do.
In Gawker’s advice column, which takes its name from the idea that an advice-giver might be just as flawed as the advice-seeker, the writer Brandy Jensen wanted to challenge the notion that guidance on life matters must come from a higher authority. (When answering a question from a millennial worried about growing old, Ms. Jensen was the first to admit she was not an expert in this area: “I have been aging disgracefully.”)
“A lot of times, we assume that what we want is for somebody who knows better to tell us something we don’t already know ourselves,” Ms. Jensen said. “That’s not what’s always happening with advice.” It could be that we want counsel from people who are familiar with who we are, even if they’re not experts, she said — or from someone who has been in a similar situation, even if they blundered as much as we did.
When I made my own suggestion box, inspired by Dr. Callard’s, I wanted to see how it would feel to be bombarded with random suggestions and the impact they could have on my choices.
Most of the 28 that I received were reading recommendations, like “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope, or the archives of the sci-fi Twitter bot account @botfic. Others were projects people wanted me to undertake, like a podcast or a vlog about my interest in aquaponics. There were some suggestions I probably won’t follow, like “Bitcoin,” or ones I can’t immediately implement for logistical reasons, like “Get a bidet,” “try Brazilian jiu-jitsu” or “go on a date with me.”
But the suggestions that meant the most to me weren’t things I didn’t know, but reminders of activities I already valued and ones that prompted me to think about how I’m using my time, like a suggestion to “get in touch with an old friend from a long time ago” or to “take a break and drink a comforting beverage of your choice.” Both made me meditate on the pace of life I want to cultivate — one that prioritizes connection and the appreciation of small moments.
One person endorsed having a long-lasting book club, not just a group to discuss books with, but a community to share whatever you are feeling during the period you read the book. I already belong to a book club, and that is exactly how it functions in my life. The suggestion reminded me how glad I was for its presence in my life.
Dr. Callard said her suggestion box functioned somewhat similarly in her life; she doesn’t accept every suggestion outright. She often uses them instead as a prompt to explore a topic further, sometimes seeking more input on how worthwhile a recommendation might be. She didn’t take suggestions to become a vegetarian or spend more time with her children, for example — but she did consider her diet and asked others how much time their parents spent with them growing up.
The magic of the suggestion box, or any soliciting of advice, might lie not in the suggestion itself but in discovering which suggestions resonate, said Stephen Browne, a professor of rhetoric at Penn State University who wrote a book chapter on the ethics of advice. It’s what we choose to act on that reveals what we truly want. This is when a suggestion stops becoming abstract and leads to real action — which makes picking what advice to go through with a matter of ethics, according to Dr. Browne.
“One must ask: Is this counsel productive of the optimal good, or does it have the potential for producing harm?” he said. “One’s answer will determine how much or whether to follow it.”
Sometimes we just need a push in any direction at all when we’re confronted with a major life change, or the prospect of one. In her novel “Motherhood,” which follows a woman in her late 30s trying to decide whether to become a parent and if it is ethical to do so, Sheila Heti describes a mystical form of suggestion seeking, tossing coins for the answers to yes or no questions, a practice from the ancient Chinese book “The I Ching.” The narrator says she is aware of endowing the coins with too much wisdom, but the practice is a way to interrupt her ambivalence.
Seeking suggestions can be an attempt to get closer to the version of ourselves we want to be. Even if we discard most of the guidance we get from others, it can be hard to imagine life without it.
“The idea that you would never seek advice from anybody is arrogant to the point of alien to me,” Ms. Jensen, Gawker’s advice columnist, said. “I don’t even know how you would navigate your own life just completely on your own, only ever regarding your own instincts about it.”
Dr. Callard has received around 300 suggestions, but her suggestion box took a turn at the end of October, when she posted on Twitter that she throws away her children’s candy the day after Halloween, and was inundated with suggestions, sometimes hurtful, about the practice. She started a new suggestion box after the “candy period” so that she wouldn’t have to sift through the hundreds of candy-related suggestions to get to the new ones.
Despite this hitch, Dr. Callard said she planned to leave her suggestion box open. Her ideal suggestion from others is something she may have never thought of — like the suggestion to read the particular sermon by Mr. McCabe — but is relevant to her interests. And the box removes the feeling that others are trying to impose their will, which Dr. Callard thinks is a reason people are generally resistant to following suggestions.
“With the suggestion box, I feel all of that is subtracted because nobody knows whether I take their suggestion or not,” she said. “I don’t have to do it to be nice. I’ll just do it if I think it’s a good suggestion.”