As a professor, I’ve always wondered why hardly anyone ever comes to my office hours. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve started to look forward to office hours as the most productive time of my day, a time when I can be virtually certain that none of my 300 students in a given term will poke their head through my door. Why would students in an enormous survey course so assiduously turn down the opportunity for individualized instruction? Research by Vanessa Bohns of the University of Waterloo and her colleagues has begun to demystify this phenomenon for me.
Bohns has argued that we who are in a position to give help regularly fail to take the perspective of the potential help-seeker. After all, asking for help requires courage: You are acknowledging a weakness, you are opening yourself to the possibility of ridicule or condescension, and you must face a potentially awkward interaction. These all represent major barriers to help-seeking. But help-givers typically fail to adequately appreciate all of these impediments. This leads help-givers to privately wonder about, or even criticize, potential help-seekers for seemingly failing to do everything they can to do as well as possible.
In one study, Bohns and her colleague Frank Flynn of Stanford University’s School of Business randomly assigned participants to take the perspective of a “helper”, a “help-seeker”, or a neutral observer. Participants read various scenarios in which one person might ask another person for help. For example, in one scenario, a person is running late for a doctor’s appointment and considers asking a second person to borrow his cellphone to let the doctor’s office know. For each scenario, participants were asked to rate the likelihood the helper would actually ask for help, the level of discomfort the help-seeker would feel, the level of discomfort the helper would feel, and how much effort it would take on the help-seeker’s part.
The researchers found that, compared to those who were assigned to view the scenarios from the helper’s perspective, those who were assigned to the help-seeker’s perspective estimated a lower likelihood that the help-seeker would actually ‘make the ask,’ and that the help-seeker would experience a higher level of discomfort. (Those in the “neutral observer” condition generally made ratings that fell between the helpers and the help-seekers.) This provided initial evidence for a critical gap between helpers and help-seekers.
In a second study, participants were randomly assigned to adopt the perspective of either a new hire in a company (a potential help-seeker) or a senior member of a company (a potential helper). Then all participants read a memo that was supposedly written by a senior manager. This memo encouraged new employees to join the company’s mentoring program. For half of the participants, the memo explicitly addressed the potential discomfort associated with joining such a program. Half of the participants were advised to frame the message to be primarily about the practical benefits the mentorship program would have for the junior employees. The other half, the memo dealt primarily with the practical benefits of joining the program. Participants were asked to rate the motives of potential junior employee help-seekers. The results showed that potential helpers mistakenly assumed that potential help-seekers were more concerned with the practical benefits of help than in the discomfort of asking for help. In other words, helpers were guilty of a major misreading of help-seekers’ motives.
This effect resembles similar examples throughout social psychological research of the common human failure to adjust from one’s own perspective. For example, people tend to underestimate the pain that other people feel when they are socially excluded (Nordgren, Banas, and MacDonald, 2010). More generally, the well-known “actor-observer bias” reflects people’s tendency to attribute other people’s actions to internal causes but their own actions to external causes. But as prevalent as such biases are, the good news is that we’ve all had a lot of experience in both positions as helper and help-seeker. This means that, in general, it should be fairly easy for people to adopt either perspective. The challenge is to learn how to recognize that “This is a situation when I need to take the other person’s perspective.”
One practical conclusion of this research: The commonplace exhortation given to students and employees—“Whenever you need help, just ask!”—is fairly useless advice. It turns out it’s not so easy to “just ask.” Employers and professors need to appreciate this. Indeed, after reading Bohns’ work, the more I thought about all the barriers to help-seeking, the more I marveled that anyone ever comes to my office hours.
Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2010). "Why didn’t you just ask?" Underestimating the discomfort of help-seeking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 402-409. Nordgren, L.F., Banas, K., &
MacDonald, G. (2011). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 120-128.