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When they ask you for help, do you want to feel special?

J. Krueger
Reflecting on a tricky issue
Source: J. Krueger

I’m asking you not to do it. Can you do that for me? Can you do not doing it?
~ Jarod Kintz

I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system. ~ Donald Trump on favor-asking and -giving, quoted in The Atlantic

Here’s the story that motivated this post: A representative of a student organization wrote me an email to ask me if I was willing to give an evening lecture to a group of sophomores to edutain them during their February slump. The email was phrased personally and it made reference to topics I have taught. I agreed within a day to give the lecture, but then learned that another professor had already responded. So thank you but never mind. This incident is not a big deal, but it captures something tricky about how we ask for favors, and how we may misstep in the process.

Having to ask for a favor puts you in a weak position. You expose a deficit (which the favor is supposed to fix) and you empower the other party to make a yes-no decision. Either way the other party comes out stronger. If she agrees to do the favor, you owe a debt of gratitude and the burden of future reciprocation. Awareness of this debt keeps many people from asking for favors in the first place, if they can at all avoid it. This reluctance adds to the favor-seeker’s weakness. The other party can assume that the asker’s situation is urgent. If she agrees to do the favor, the asker’s weakness is confirmed and the debt of gratitude is activated. If she says no, the asker’s weakness is also confirmed. Although there is no debt to repay, there is probably regret about having had to ask. Had the asker anticipated the negative response, she would not have asked.

Favor-asking creates a dilemma of trust. By not asking, the trustor can preserve an unpleasant status quo. If she does ask, she shows trust, and now it all depends on the other party’s response. If the response is positive, the asker’s situation has improved, while the other party is a bit worse off because favors, by definition, are costly. This cost can be buffered by the emotional gratification of having helped and by the prospect of having a favor to call in when the need arises. If the response is negative, trust is betrayed, and the help-seeker is worse off than before. She has eliminated one opportunity of being helped and the need for assistance has grown stronger. The other party may also be worse off inasmuch as she dislikes saying no. However, she did not have to pay the cost of helping. In short, compared with not asking, a help-seeker benefits if the favor is granted, and suffers if it is not granted. The decision to ask is difficult (amounting to a trust dilemma) if the asker does not know the other party well enough to know her assessment of the costs and benefits of doing and not doing the favor.

This brief sketch of favor-asking as a social dilemma assumes the presence of two parties and it makes certain assumptions about the context. It assumes that the situation neither involves trivial favors nor matters of life and death, and it assumes that the seeker is uncertain about the other party’s response.

The favor-seeker’s uncertainty can motivate a look for additional strategies. She may attempt, for example, to approach several parties at once. In one version of this scenario, these parties are aware of one another and the fact that only one of them is needed to help. This scenario amounts to the famous bystander situation. Formal analysis and empirical findings show that individual bystanders become less likely to help as their number becomes larger. Imagine one person were needed to save the world by surrendering her own life. Would you do it? To the seeker the number of potential helpers hardly matters. If there is a difference, she is somewhat less likely to receive help by anyone as the group grows larger (but this point is still being debated).

The help-seeker may conceal the fact that she is putting out several calls for help. This strategy maximizes the probability of receiving a positive response from at least one other party. But this strategy is deceptive. When more than one party agrees to help, what is one to tell the others? It may be difficult to argue that the need for help has somehow gone away. Help-seekers who find themselves forced to admit that they had approached several parties face a moment of awkwardness. A helper who has just decided to do the right thing will feel rebuffed and betrayed. This person will probably decide not to offer help to this individual in the future, and may be wary when considering calls for help from others. The strategy of multiple disguised calls for help thereby endangers social capital [again, I am bracketing out matters of life and death].

Why do some people make the mistake of making multiple simultaneous requests without disclosure? Perhaps they mistake the social situation, which involves trust and the potential of betrayal, for an economic auction. They create a situation that favors the fastest (if not the highest) bidder. In a blind auction, a bidder does not know how many other bidders there are, but it is not a secret that there might be several. Moreover, a bidder enters an auction in hopes of making a gain from the transaction. A favor-doer or help-giver does not expect a material gain. Perhaps then, the rational response to having one’s offer to help declined is relief.

A shout-out from popular culture

Gemma, Netflix matriarch in Sons of Anarchy, has this to say when a not-clued-in hospital administrator asks her for a favor: "You have no idea who we are. All you got is an impression - corrupted by the opinions of others" (Season 3, ep. 7, 'Widening Gyre'). This is a rather devastating réplique. Replacing "we are" with "I am," you may experiment with it at the opportune time and observe what happens. Whatever the result, don't blame me, but I will say this: Gemma is right on the money. Her assertion is irrefutable.