Life Advice



Science Advice Goddess: Truth Ache

Amy Alkon on

--Advice From 60-Something Male

Telling people what to do is necessary in certain situations, like when it's a more successful battle strategy than "You do you!": dispatching the troops to engage in the military version of interpretive dance.

However, in general, direct advice -- "Do this!" or "Do that!" -- tends to backfire big-time, revving up a state psychologist Jack Brehm calls "psychological reactance." "Reactance" describes our fear-driven freakout -- our reaction -- when we perceive a threat to our freedom to do as we choose. We go on the defensive -- rebel against being controlled-- typically by doing whatever we were doing...only longer, stronger, and louder.

Understanding this is why I'm an advice columnist who specializes in NOT giving advice. I use hedgy-wedgy language like "you might" and "you could" that leaves big wide-open spaces for personal choice. Accordingly, instead of telling this woman, "Dump Mr. Needypants pronto!" I offered reasons the two MIGHT be a bad match. I also identified potential stumbling blocks -- like being a "My needs last!" habitual "pleaser" -- and suggested practical steps she could take to kick them out of the way.

My ultimate goal is helping people help themselves: giving them the psychological and behavioral chops they need to render me unnecessary! I typically retell the story they've told me in ways I hope will help them gain perspective -- that is, understand what they're going through and why. I then lay out a set of tools -- ways they might tweak their thinking and behavior -- in hopes of empowering them to dig themselves out.


Basically, my column is the advice version of that well-worn fish saying -- uh, as I like to rewrite it: Give a woman a fish and she'll have dinner. Teach a woman to fish and she'll have dinner for a lifetime...OR -- let's be honest -- because my column and I are big on realism: She'll order her fish dinner in a Paris bistro, poring over photos of a fabulous Chanel fly-casting suit and sketching out her plot to rob the Louvre to pay for it.


Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Follow her on Twitter @amyalkon. Order her latest "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence."




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