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Use Psychology to Handle These 7 Sticky Situations

These psych tips can make your day go more smoothly...or even save your life.

Each day presents us with personal and relationship challenges.  Can psychology research help you meet those challenges?  Yes, most definitely!  Not only can research studies help you understand what is going on in a given situation, they can provide guidelines for action.

Trip Hazard,
Source: Trip Hazard,

In the seven typical problem situations below, recent research could help you decide the best course of action. Check out each scenario and see if you could apply the study results to your own life.  And, speaking of life, you could possibly save your own or another person's with the information provided in Situation #1.

Situation #1: You are strolling along the sidewalk on a beautiful day when suddenly you trip and fall on the uneven pavement.  Your cellphone clatters into the gutter and you find that you can’t get up. Could you have broken a bone?  A small crowd gathers and there are sympathetic murmurs, but no one does anything to help.

How Psych Research Can Help

You could be a victim of “the bystander effect.”  In crowds, people are often less helpful than expected, because each person believes that someone else will step in to do what is necessary. To bypass the bystander effect, single out one person and ask directly for help, like this: “You in the blue shirt! Please call 911!”

This scenario has been emblazoned on my mind since I read about it in psychologist Sam Sommers’ book, Situations Matter.  Because I’m a dedicated walker and jogger, I’ve rehearsed it in my mind many times, just in case. “The Bystander Effect” also reminds us to overcome our inclination to wait for the other guy to take charge. We can train ourselves to take more responsibility when another person needs help.

Situation #2:  You made a lunch date with a friend—and then forgot it.  Your friend is fuming. How best could you repair your broken relationship?

How Psych Research Can Help:

When you make a mistake with another person, you need to apologize—but how? New research suggests that there are six elements of a good apology, but two of those are most effective in healing a rift between people. 

Researchers asked 755 people in two studies to rate scenarios in which people apologized.  Based on their results, the two most crucial things to do when you’ve done something wrong are: 1. Take responsibility, for example, by saying, “I was wrong” or “It was my mistake.”  2. Make an “offer of repair,” such as, “I’ll take care of this by doing X and Y.” 

(FYI, the next three actions were about equal in effectiveness.  They were: expression of regret; explanation of what went wrong; and communicating repentance.  Oddly, the least effective element of an apology was a request for forgiveness.  See here for more details.)

"Eating Alone," by Renee Silverman,, Creative Commons
Source: "Eating Alone," by Renee Silverman,, Creative Commons

I’ve added my own twist to Element 2, the offer of repair.  If I have been offended and the other person does not make an offer of repair, I help them out by suggesting one. Example: A friend forgot our lunch date. There I sat, at one of the trendiest places in town, alone. A local celebrity was sitting a short distance away and periodically gave me a pityingly look—or so it seemed. (Other research shows that people don’t pay as much attention to us as we think!)  Although I often enjoy eating out alone, this was not one of those times.  So when I talked to my apologetic friend, I suggested she set up the next lunch date and treat me.  Sure enough, all negative feelings ebbed away when she said yes—and then did it!

Situation 3: You will be giving a speech to a professional group, and you are extremely nervous about it. What should you do to be at your best? 

How Psych Research Can Help:

Most people try to calm themselves down in an anxiety-provoking situation. But in several fascinating studies by Harvard researcher Alison Brooks, psychologists determined a more effective way of coping with performance anxiety. Before giving a talk, experimental subjects were instructed either to tell themselves, “I am calm” or “I am excited.” The group that told themselves they were excited gave longer, more persuasive speeches and, paradoxically, felt calmer about performing. This tactic also worked before math tests and karaoke contests.

Why? As study author Brooks explained, anxiety and excitement are both emotional states characterized by high arousal.To combat performance anxiety, it’s more helpful to re-frame nervousness as excitement, since trying to calm down would probably be futile anyway. This is why many speech professionals tell you that a little anxiety can provide fuel for an energetic and enthusiastic speech.

Situation 4:  You promised a friend you would loan him a particular book.  As you get ready to walk over to his house with the book, you realize that he might like a few other books that you’ve already read.  Should you bring them?

How Psych Research Can Help:

People think well of other people who keep their promises, so following through on your promise is important to being seen in a positive light by your friend. 

But in a recent study, researchers discovered that exceeding your promises won’t get you extra gratitude or appreciation. So, whether you bring the extra books or not is up to you, but don’t get annoyed if your generous effort is not appreciated to the degree you want. And if the books are heavy and the walk is long…well, maybe it’s not worth the extra effort.

Hand massage, by Lubyanka,, Creative Commons
Source: Hand massage, by Lubyanka,, Creative Commons

Situation 5: You are feeling down, haunted by a vague feeling of unhappiness.  What would lift your mood?  A massage? A trip to the nail salon? Other forms of “me time?”

How Psych Research Can Help:

A recent study of almost 500 people, along with numerous other studies, revealed that doing something nice for another person boosted mood more than doing something nice for yourself. Acts of kindness such as buying a coffee for a friend, picking up litter, or even opening a door for someone increased happiness for the giver. Researchers speculated that doing something kind for another person was so effective in lifting mood because it involved connecting with other people. As one researcher noted:

“…as people do nice things for others, they may feel greater joy, contentment, and love, which in turn promote greater overall well-being and improve social relationships ...”. In turn, better social relationships will lead to greater happiness and peace of mind as discussed here.

I confess to mixed feelings about this recommendation. Some people—and you know who you are—tend to put themselves last when it comes to self-care and self-kindness. For these people, giving themselves the gift of a brief nap, a walk, or, a healthy treat like a massage might boost happiness and mood also. But at those times when you feel vaguely discontented or have lost perspective about all the positives in your life, acts of kindness just might help you regain your mental balance.

Situation 6:  You are single and see an attractive potential partner at a cafe just a few tables away.  How could you approach that person to ask for a date?

How Psych Research Can Help:

A huge variety of studies come to a similar conclusion: When one person asks for a favor, the other person is likely to comply. Even when the request is vague and has no sensible reason, like “Could I butt in front of you in the copier line because I need to?”, people are likely to say, “Okay.”

Source: "Bookshelf," by Joe Crawford,, Creative Commons

So in Situation 6, just ask! In his blog here, PT blogger Jeremy Nicholson offers a template about what to say and cites research that about 68% of men and 43% of women would accept your offer of a date. In fact, many would accede to requests for much more than that. For the salacious details, read the blog.

On a more prosaic level, in recent studies described here, over 14,000 people were asked for favors including sponsoring someone in a race, borrowing a phone, or even defacing a library book. 64% complied with the request to write “pickle” on the first page of a library book—in pen. (I volunteer at a library, so the very thought fills me with horror.)

The bottom line: Just asking for a favor has magic and power to it. People find it hard to say no.  (It's a little scary, isn't it?)

Situation 7: OK, now the shoe is on the other foot. Someone is asking YOU for a favor.  What should you do if your colleague wants to borrow your cellphone for a day?  She’s forgotten hers and needs a phone number to use in case her son’s daycare calls with an emergency. You’d like to help out, but you are reluctant to loan your phone with all its private information stored within.

How Psych Research Can Help:

Now you know from Situation 6 that if when one person asks another for a favor, the person asked is likely to comply. This means you! But do you really want to relinquish your mobile for a day? Recognize that you could become a victim of your own tendency to say yes and prepare yourself to say NO: “I’d like to help, but I have a policy to never lend out my phone.” Although it’s not your responsibility to do so, you could brainstorm options: “How about if you give the daycare my number, and I’ll run and get you if there’s an emergency?”

If you find that you have become too much of a pushover, work on your assertiveness. Tips here.

Summing Up

Of course, these findings are all generalizations. Someone in your life may love it when you go the extra mile.  Many strangers who see that you are in trouble would immediately call 911.  Asking for a favor increases your chances of getting it, but it doesn't mean you will. So, while the studies above can help out in many, if not most, cases, you’ll need to use your individual judgment in your particular situation.  But of course you would do that anyway, right?!

© Meg Selig, 2016

Would more scenarios like these be helpful to you?  If so, please let me know in Comments, and you'll see more "practical psychology" in a subsequent blog.

For more on health, happiness, and habits, scroll down to my photo and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. 


The bystander effect. Sommers, S. Situations Matter (2011), NY: Riverhead Books, p. 47.

Jeremy Dean regularly summarizes the latest psych research on his blog, PsyBlog here.

Nicholson, J. Just Asking for It, Part I, here.