Psychological researchers are always asking people for help. Doing research means asking people to fill in questionnaires, press buttons in computer programs and sit in fMRI scanners – all in the name of science and usually for little or no apparent reward.
In response to these requests people are generally very co-operative, in fact unexpectedly co-operative. When psychology students carry out their first few studies they are often pleasantly surprised. Their requests for help, instead of being met with blank faces and excuses, are often met with smiles and agreements.
In everyday life asking others for help can be embarrassing, perhaps even a painful experience. Requesting help potentially shows our own weakness and also opens us up to rejection. It’s a relief when people say yes.
A helping hand
Perhaps this explains the conclusion of new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that finds we grossly underestimate just how willing others are to help us out.
In a series of studies Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake of Columbia University tested people’s estimation of how likely others were to help them out. They got people to ask others to fill in questionnaires, to borrow cell phones and to escort them to the gym.
Across these studies they found that people underestimated how likely others were to help them by as much as 100%.
This is such a high figure that it demands an explanation – what’s going on here?
Embarrassing to say ‘no’
Part of the answer is our egocentric bias – we find it difficult to understand what others are thinking and feeling because we are stuck inside our own heads.
But it’s more than just that, argue Flynn and Lake, it’s also the fact that we underestimate just how much social pressure there is on other people to say yes. In effect, when you ask someone to help you, it’s much more awkward and embarrassing for them to say ‘no’ than you might think.
In two further studies Flynn and Lake supported this intuition by asking participants to put themselves in either the role of someone asking for help, or someone being asked for help.
They found that when people were help-seekers they reliably played down the social costs of saying no. But when they were the potential helper they realised how difficult it was to say no.
Ask for help, but don’t ask for too much
There’s two very practical messages coming out of this research:
If you want help, just ask. People are much more likely to help than you think, especially if the request is relatively small. Most people take pleasure in helping others out from time-to-time.
Make it easy for others to say no. The other side of the coin is that most of us don’t realise just how hard it is to say no to a request for help. Other people feel much more pressure to say yes to our requests than we realise. If the help you need is likely to be burdensome then think about ways of making it easier to say no.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.