Ask and You Shall Receive

Asking a favor is hard, but refusing a request can be just as tough.

Posted Jul 06, 2016

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You’ve been traveling all week on business—long, stressful meetings, and even longer hours on the laptop late at night in a lonely hotel room. Now you’re at the airport, waiting to board the last flight of your journey home. Then the announcement comes: The flight will be delayed two hours.

You want to scream. You just want to be home. Your family is picking you up at the airport; you need to call home and let them know your flight is delayed. You pull out your phone, and discover that the battery is dead. No problem, you think. There’s an electrical outlet right over there. If only you can find your charger. Then you remember: You packed it in your checked luggage.

After kicking yourself over that, you come up with another option: The person next to you has just made a phone call. You could ask to use her phone—but will you? And if you do, what’s the likelihood of getting rejected?

Cornell University psychologist Vanessa Bohns used just such a scenario to study the dynamics of making and complying with requests between strangers. Participants were taken to a public space and given the task of approaching strangers and asking to use their phone. The participants needed to keep asking strangers until they got three people to consent.

But first the requesters had to estimate how many people they would need to ask to get those three positive responses. The average estimate was 10. In other words, they assumed they would have to ask three or four people before they got a single yes.

They were wrong, and by a wide margin. To get three people to agree to share their phones, they only had to ask six people on average—the request was granted half the time.

It’s nice to discover that in our supposedly self-centered age, people are still willing to help strangers in need. But this wasn’t the only purpose of the study, or even the main one. The real question was why people underestimate compliance to a request by so much. Bohns believes that participants' low estimation rates, and the high compliance rates she found in this and similar studies, are due to the fact that the request is a face-threatening situation—for both the requester and the requestee.

When we make a request of a stranger (or even an acquaintance), there’s always the possibility of rejection. And rejection hurts because it threatens our sense of self-worth in the eyes of others. In fact, rejection can hurt so much that we often avoid it by not asking in the first place: Dateless on prom night. I cried at your wedding. Still thinking of you and me and what might have been after all those years….

Let’s put ourselves in the requestee’s shoes for a moment: We’ve all been asked by a stranger for something, whether it's Girl Scouts selling cookies, someone approaching with a survey at the mall, or a “Donate a dollar for the save-the-lemmings fund?” table at the supermarket checkout.

Many times we comply. We buy cookies we don’t want, we answer a bunch of silly questions, and we donate a dollar. Why? Because saying no to a request also threatens our face. If you comply, you can pat yourself on the back for doing a good deed. But if you feel you have to refuse, you have to deal with the guilt of not being as helpful as you could have been.

When we’re in the requester’s shoes, we tend to forget how difficult it is to say no. Instead, we focus our attention on the anticipated pain of rejection. We mindlessly assume that it’s going to be easy for other people to say no—and that they probably will.

This is just one example of how difficult it can be to anticipate the behavior of other people when we are preoccupied with our own petty worries. In fact, people have all sorts of misconceptions about making requests. One is that it’s easier to make a request indirectly—asking through email instead of face-to-face, or by dropping hints rather than making a direct request. It’s true that making indirect requests reduces the fear of rejection—Maybe they didn’t get my email; Maybe they didn’t pick up on my hints—but what we often forget when we are the requesters is that indirect requests are also easier to reject. Click “Delete” and that email’s gone for good. It’s also easy to pretend you didn’t get all those not-at-all-subtle hints.

Another misconception is that people are more likely to help when there’s something in it for them. In one study, Bohns and her colleagues asked participants to approach strangers with a request to fill out a survey. Half of the participants were given money so they could offer a small cash incentive, while the other participants were given no cash to hand out. Before they began the requesting task, they estimated how many people they’d have to approach to get the required number of completed surveys.

When a cash incentive was to be offered, the underestimation-of-compliance effect went away. However, the actual rate of compliance was the same in both conditions. People were just as willing to fill out a survey whether or not they got a monetary reward for doing so. But the requesters felt more comfortable making the request when they offered cash, so they were able to think more realistically about how difficult it can be for others to refuse a request.

So, your flight’s delayed, and your phone is dead. Are you going to risk rejection and ask to borrow a phone? Or are you going to save your pride and let your family wait for two hours at the airport, wondering why you didn’t call?

Special thanks to my Summer 2016 History and Systems class at Georgia Gwinnett College for a fruitful discussion of the Bohns (2016) article, which inspired me to write this blog post.


Bohns, V. K. (2016). (Mis)understanding our influence over others: A review of the underestimation-of-compliance effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 119-123.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).