Advice-giving benefits the person sharing guidance

In a Q&A, Wharton postdoc Lauren Eskreis-Winkler discusses new findings that signal it may be time to shift how we think about motivation and achievement.

Three students engaged in conversation sitting at a desk covered with papers, notebooks, and a computer.

Intuition says that people who struggle with something, say earning solid grades or losing weight, will benefit from receiving advice. But findings out of the University of Pennsylvania published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest that the opposite is also true. 

In an intervention with nearly 2,000 high schoolers, a team led by Wharton postdoctoral researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler discovered that advice-giving actually helps the students doing the counseling. The paper represents the first major project from Penn’s Behavior Change for Good (BCFG) initiative. It was co-authored by BCFG co-directors and Penn professors Katherine Milkman and Angela Duckworth, as well as BCFG executive director Dena Gromet.

“Motivation is not calculus. If you told students who don’t know calculus, ‘Teach this to somebody else,’ that would be ludicrous,” Eskreis-Winkler explains. “Motivation is a little different. Often, people know what they need to do to achieve a goal. They’re just not doing it. The battle is getting people to enact what they already know.” 

The work, executed by the nonprofit Character Lab in partnership with BCFG, could have implications for the way teachers, coaches, and even parents approach motivation. In a conversation with Penn Today, Eskreis-Winkler describes why the findings excite her and where she sees potential for future study. 


This research is all about motivation; so what motivated this work? Where did it begin? 

When I was a doctoral student, my advisor, Angela Duckworth, and I designed motivational interventions aimed at galvanizing people—for example, adults in the workforce or kids in schools—to work harder. These interventions were didactic. They communicated cutting-edge scientific research on the psychology of effort and achievement. We figured, we’re the psychologists, and the best way we can help others is to give them our expertise on the subject. 

We designed a bunch of somewhat successful interventions along those lines, and in the process conducted many focus groups. In doing so, I was struck by how incredibly sophisticated the strategies were that the kids already used to motivate themselves. One student who didn’t want to do his math homework put a candy at the end of each page. When he finished the problems on the page, he rewarded himself by eating it. Another student imagined his house was burning down and told himself he had to finish the problem before the fire reached him. 

It sounds like clarity over the idea that individuals create and use their own motivational toolbox inspired the experiment you eventually ran. 

Exactly. I’m technically the psychologist in the room, but, really, everyone is their own little motivational psychologist. A million times a day, people problem-solve big and small ways to motivate themselves and, in some cases, do so very effectively. The current intervention is that insight in a bottle. We figured, instead of telling kids about the latest science of motivation, what if we let them motivate themselves? As opposed to having kids receive advice, the intervention asks kids to give it. 

What did study participants actually do? 

We conducted a randomized, controlled experiment. Half the students were randomized to be advice givers; half were randomized to a control condition. We told advice givers we think they have valuable knowledge and information about how to motivate themselves in school, and we asked them to share that knowledge with younger students.   

Specifically, they answered a series of questions about topics like the best place to study and how to avoid procrastination. They also wrote a letter of advice to a younger student. The activity was designed to elicit participants’ advice and to make them feel like bona fide advisors, people who have useful information to share.

Were they actually paired with someone receiving the recommendations? 

The advice was distributed to students, but our advice givers did not directly interact with the students who received the advice because this was a one-time, online activity. Your question points to an exciting direction for future research; I could imagine how a pen-pal program that fosters real interactions between advisor and advisee might accentuate the benefits for the advisor. 

Can you explain some of the positive results you saw?

At the end of the academic quarter that included the intervention, advice-givers earned higher report-card grades than controls. Raising objectively measured academic achievement is a tall order, so we were pretty thrilled that the intervention managed to help kids in this way, over an extended time period.

Remarkably, our rising tide lifted all ships. The intervention, on average, raised grades for all students. Often, school-based interventions are only beneficial for certain subgroups, for example, students of one gender, race, or socioeconomic status. In contrast, this intervention benefitted everyone. I think it’s because it’s such an unusual thing for any adolescent to be approached and asked to offer over knowledge, as opposed to receive it. I’d guess this is why the intervention had a universal effect. 

What’s the takeaway from this research, something schools could implement right now?

I hope this experiment catalyzes a paradigm shift in the way teachers, coaches, supervisors, and parents motivate others. If somebody we know is struggling, our intuition is to give that person help, to position him or her as a recipient. But our work shows there is benefit in doing the exact opposite. Our results point to the underappreciated, underutilized motivational power of giving.  

Funding for the research came from the University of Pennsylvania’s Behavior Change for Good initiative, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the College Board, Character Lab, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Glenn Greenberg and Linda Vester Foundation, Marc J. Leder, the Overdeck Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation.

Lauren Eskreis-Winkler is a postdoctoral researcher in the Operations, Information, and Decisions Department in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Ph.D. from Penn in 2015. 

Angela Duckworth is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the Psychology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She also co-leads the University’s Behavior Change for Good initiative and runs the nonprofit Character Lab

Katherine Milkman is the Evan C. Thompson Endowed Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and a professor of in the Operations, Information, and Decisions Department in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She also co-leads the Behavior Change for Good initiative. 

Dena Gromet is the executive director of the Behavior Change for Good initiative.