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The Awesome and Sometimes Sinister Power of "The Ask"

Why it's so hard to say no to a request, and what you can do about it.

Key points

  • Just asking someone for a favor makes it likely that they will say yes.
  • The power of "The Ask" can be used unethically by people as a persuasion tool.
  • It's hard to say "no," but learning how to be assertive is essential to protecting oneself.
Source: geralt/Pixabay
Source: geralt/Pixabay

Do you find it hard to say "no" to a request? Most people do. Whether a fundraiser asks for a donation, a stranger asks you to fill out a survey, or a friend asks for a ride to the airport, your first impulse may be to say "yes," even though you don’t really want to comply.

If you have ever been in a situation like those listed above, you’ll be interested in recent research about the power of “The Ask.” In her book, You Have More Influence Than You Think, psychologist Vanessa Bohns discovered that it was much easier to get people to comply with simple requests than expected. For example, her assistants asked strangers for a variety of favors—to fill out questionnaires, donate to charities, lend out their cell phones, and guide them to nearby buildings. Her conclusion: “[P]eople are almost twice as likely to agree to the range of things my participants ask for in these studies as they expect, which is a huge effect.”

In later experiments, her researchers asked and got agreement from people not just to comply with small favors but also to commit petty crimes. For instance, 68 percent of people approached by her assistants agreed to say they’d heard a marketing pitch when they hadn’t. In another experiment, assistants asked random strangers to write the word “pickle” in a library book as part of a prank. People were uncomfortable with the request, but, ultimately, 64 percent agreed. (Bohns assures us that no real library books were harmed in this experiment.)

Moreover, shockingly enough, when it comes to dating and sex, “Research supports this idea that we—both men and women—regularly accept romantic advances from suitors we aren’t actually interested in because we feel bad saying 'no.'” (For tips on having more honest conversations about sex, see this post.)

Good News, Bad News

There is good news and bad news about this research. The good news is that if you can motivate yourself to ask someone for something, you are more likely to get agreement from them than you think. Just the simple act of asking could help you reach your work goals, get a date, receive the gift you really want, find out interesting or vital information, or get help. This news could be especially helpful if you are shy, anxious about rejection, or fearful of speaking up to authority figures.

The bad news is that if you are the “Askee,” you are more likely to say "yes" despite the cost to you. For example, women who are asked for money by romance scammers often say "yes" even when the sums involved are colossal. Another example: In the classic "Milgram experiment," 65 percent of study participants were willing to administer increasingly painful shocks to “learners” when told by a white-coated experimenter, “Please continue.” (The “learners” were unharmed actors communicating their "pain" from another room, but study participants had no way of knowing that.)

Why Asking Is So Powerful

What accounts for the mysterious, and often insidious, power of The Ask? Why do people agree to things that are inconvenient, costly, immoral, time-consuming, or against their best interests? Bohns cites various reasons:

  1. We want to look like and see ourselves as good people. As Bohn points out, most people agree "because they feel guilty or uncomfortable saying 'no,' because they want to feel like good people, because they want to look like good people, because it pains them to see someone else suffer, or out of genuine empathy and a desire to do something good.”
  2. We don’t want to be rude to others or cause them to “lose face.”
  3. More insidiously, we are under the sway of someone who wields power over us, such as a boss, an authority figure, or a seemingly trustworthy person like a teacher or religious leader.

I would add to the above mix the timeless human tendency to seek social connections. Since our earliest days of banding together on the savanna to avoid predators, we know that being separated from “the tribe” can mean danger and death. We worry that saying "no" can mean the rupture of a relationship and possible isolation. And isolation and loneliness can affect our health, longevity, mood, and even our susceptibility to chronic pain. Recently, U.S. Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy noted that the "epidemic" of loneliness in our society constituted a health crisis in itself.

How to Say "No" With Respect—for Yourself and Others

If you seek an antidote to your own tendency to say yes when you want to say no, learn to be more assertive. Assertiveness can represent direct, honest, and appropriate ways of standing up for your rights while still respecting the other person. Here are some quick tips to help you counter the natural human tendency to say "yes" while still maintaining positive connections to others:

  1. Remember that you have rights—including the rights to speak up, to express yourself, and to say "no." And, of course, you have the right to be free from manipulation, intimidation, and violence.
  2. If you tend to say "yes" because you want to think of yourself as “a good person,” you could tell yourself: “I am a good person when I protect myself and live by my values, not just when I help other people.”
  3. Formulate your “no” as a policy statement: “I’m sorry, I have a policy of never lending out my cellphone.” That takes your refusal out of the personal realm and into the “policy” realm.
  4. Memorize and use an all-purpose assertive phrase like, “I’m just not comfortable with that.” Or a “Thanks, but” phrase like: “Thanks, but I don't think so.” (For more all-purpose assertive phrases, click here.)
  5. It's OK to keep it simple. Remember the wise words of essayist Anne Lamott: “’No’ is a complete sentence.”
  6. Give yourself time. Tell the other person, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

Do Me a Favor: Read This Summary

I used to think that my own difficulties with saying “no” stemmed from being brought up before the Women’s Movement, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Now I realize, from the work of Bohns and others, that there is a natural human tendency to say "yes" and comply with others, even when the cost is high. To protect your time, money, self-respect, health, and happiness, be aware of that tendency and practice the assertiveness tactics above.

© Meg Selig, 2023. All rights reserved.


Bohns, V. (2021). You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion and Why It Matters. NY: W.W. Norton.

Powell, E. Talking Back to Sexual Pressure (CompCare, 1991) or in her 2013 e-book.

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