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Need a Hand? Just Ask (Really)

Why we (wrongly) assume people don't want to help us.

Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

One interesting finding from studies done over the last several years is that people underestimate how likely someone else is to comply with a request. That is, if you ask someone to do a simple task, they are generally much more likely to agree to do it than you think they will be.

So why do we have difficulty predicting other people’s behavior?

This question was explored in a paper by Vanessa Bohns, Daniel Newark, and Amy Xu published in a 2016 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. In their studies, the team contrasted simple requests with requests in which a person offered an incentive. In one study, participants were asked to approach students on a college campus and ask them to vandalize a library book by writing the word pickle in it in pen. They were given a book that looked like a book from the school library (although it was actually just designed to look that way by the researchers). Before approaching students, participants were asked to estimate how many people they would have to approach in order to get three people to write in the book.

Participants made their requests in one of two ways:

  • One group was told to say, “I’m trying to play a prank on someone, but they know my handwriting. Would you write the word ‘pickle’ on a page of this library book?”
  • A second group was told to set up a similar scenario, but they were also told to add, “If I gave you one dollar, would you write the word ‘pickle’ on a page of this library book?"

The result: Participants had to approach about six people in order to find three who would write in the book—regardless of whether they offered a dollar or not. The incentive did not affect whether people would go along with the request.

However, people asked to make the request without the dollar incentive had predicted that they would have to ask at least 11 people in order to find three who would comply. In contrast, the people offering an incentive thought they would need to ask seven people in order to get three to comply. Participants offering an incentive made better predictions about how likely people were to comply with the request than those who asked without one.

A second study in this series demonstrated that this effect is specific to financial incentives: This study also had participants approach students and ask them to vandalize a book. One group was told to ask without an incentive; a second group offered a one-dollar incentive; and a third group offered a candy bar.

As before, the incentive had no real effect on compliance: About six people had to be approached by each participant in order to get three to vandalize the book. Once again, the people offering the dollar were pretty well-calibrated: They assumed they would have to ask about eight people to get three to comply. In contrast, both those offering no incentive (who assumed they would have to ask more than 11 people) and those offering a candy bar (who assumed they would have to ask about 14 people) significantly overestimated how many people they would have to ask.

These results suggest that there is something special about money that makes people better able to predict whether someone will agree to a request. To explore why this happens, another study used vignettes rather than a field study. Participants read about the library book example, as well as another task that has been used in field studies, in which people were asked to fill out short questionnaires. The participants thought about situations in which there was no incentive; a one-dollar incentive; or a candy-bar incentive and gave ratings on a number of dimensions about these situations. Compared with the no-incentive condition and the candy-bar incentive, the financial exchange led participants to assume that people approached would be more motivated to comply with the request. It was assumed people would adopt a business exchange model of the task rather than treating the request as a favor, meaning it was more like a business transaction.

A final study looked at people’s attitudes about having to ask for a favor either with or without money. Participants again read scenarios in which they had to ask for a favor and either did or did not offer a dollar in exchange for help. Participants felt they would be more uncomfortable making a request without offering money in exchange. They thought asking for a favor in the absence of money created a sense of obligation, and therefore they were asking for a bigger favor when there was no money involved than they were when an incentive was offered.

The way all of this fits together is that when you ask someone for a favor, you assume that what you are requesting is a big deal. It is hard to see the request from the other person’s perspective—which is that the favor may seem small and worth doing to help someone out. As a result of this discomfort, you assume that it will be harder to get people to comply with your request than it actually is.

These results are important, since many people don't ask others for help because they feel like their request is asking too much of someone else. As a result, people often make tasks more difficult for themselves, even though sharing the burden or giving advice might not be a big deal for the person being asked. Small financial incentives don’t make people more willing to comply with simple requests; they have a bigger effect on the person making the request than on the person who is asked to do the favor.

Ultimately, the most important lesson here is to just go ahead and ask for help with something when you need it. Just as you are often willing to help out people around you—even strangers—other people are more likely to help you than you might think.

Check out my book, Smart Change.

LinkedIn image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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