04/11/2015 10:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Core Value Therapy: Why We Ignore Good Advice (And How to Start Taking Action)

I'm going to give you some good advice, but first, I need you to do something important. Stop whatever you're doing while you read this, close your eyes, and think for a moment about your core values. What are the most important things in the world to you? What do you want your life to be about?

Now, ready for that advice? According to some fascinating new medical research, I already gave it to you. According to the study coming out of the University of Pennsylvania, the things you think about just before you receive advice has a dramatic effect on whether you actually listen to it.

"Our findings highlight that something as simple as reflecting on core values can fundamentally change the way our brains respond to the kinds of messages we encounter every day. Over time, that makes the potential impact huge." That's a quote from Emily Falk, lead author of the study.

If you've ever ignored good advice and later regretted it, this could be what's keeping you from accepting and taking action when great ideas come your way.

Image courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection

The Power Struggle: Why We Ignore Good Advice

For even the most docile of us, life is a never-ending power struggle. You spend most of your waking hours working to gain (and keep) control of your mind. It takes all that effort to keep your body doing the things you want it to. Above all that, you have an ego and an image to maintain. No matter who you are, you like to think you're in control of you -- that you're strong and powerful.

As a human, your identity is wrapped up in the illusion of control. But you're not an expert at everything. You need help -- good advice -- occasionally to succeed at things you don't know yet. This is where the problem lies. The more powerful you feel, the more likely you are to discount or just plain ignore great advice.

A team of researchers from The University of Washington, Harvard, and Duke ran several tests on a bunch of university students. As part of the experiments, they pumped up the egos of some of the students before giving them advice. In this case, on how to accurately estimate the number of coins in a jar.

The ego boost was like putting them into a video game and turning on God-mode. Those feelings of power completely zapped their abilities to consider good advice. Even when they had no idea what they were doing and the advice was coming from a bona fide expert. [1]

They proved it again and again with a number of tests controlling for different variables. Feeling like you've got it together is a good thing. But, turns out, it can kind of make you a jerk when it comes to listening to advice.

Core Value Therapy: How To Accept Good Advice (And Take Action On It)

If anyone deals with this human peculiarity more than others, it's doctors. They dedicate their lives to learning how to help you be healthy only to have their experience thrown in their face when that cocksure rancher comes back with, "I ain't never gonna stop eatin' beef no matter what ya tell me!" Sigh.

You've probably done it, too. I know I have.

  • "Three weeks of rest sounds good, but I'll be fine after one."
  • "That doctor isn't a specialist. What does she know about my gluten intolerance?"
  • "I'll just cut this cast off tomorrow. It's kind of itchy."
  • You often ignore the advice and, just as often, regret it.

Since doctors deal with this so frequently, they also invest a lot of resources into beating it. How do you get people to actually do the things you know will help them?

Emily Falk, lead author of a recent study on just that subject, uncovered a surprisingly effective tactic. What she learned is if you think about your core values just before receiving your doctor's wisdom, you're more likely to put it to use in your life. [2]

The reason is connected to the way your brain works. Thinking about your core values -- things that are really important to you -- gets the juices flowing in your ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a region of your brain which, in this case, can just be called your "good advice taker." The more you stimulate activity there, the more likely you are to listen to and trust expert advice.

Do This Right Now

You're in a paradox. Having your life together and feeling like you're powerful and in control is a big plus for your overall happiness and success. But, the stronger you get, the bigger the chance you'll start ignoring the advice that got you there in the first place. That's a recipe for disaster.

So, what's a strong, confident person to do? Take time every day to reflect on your core values. It's as simple as that.

We don't really know why it works, but we know it does. If I had to guess, it would be that thinking of your core values forces you to take a look at your long-term goals. When you think about those, you'll remember you don't know everything. And not knowing everything is just the crack in your armor you need to let the good advice of the people you trust to sink in and help steer you the right direction.

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.


1. Power, competitiveness, and advice taking: Why the powerful don't listen

2. A Simple Intervention Can Make Your Brain More Receptive to Health Advice

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