Sept. 19, 2022
Many things can get in the way of asking others for help: Fear of rejection. Fear of imposing. The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology so ingrained in American culture.
But new research suggests many of us underestimate how willing — even happy! — others are to lend a helping hand.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science this month, included six small experiments involving more than 2,000 participants — all designed to compare the perspectives of those asking for help with the perspectives of helpers.
Across all of the experiments, those asking for help consistently underestimated how willing friends and strangers were to assist, as well as how good the helpers felt afterward.
And the researchers believe those miscalibrated expectations might stand in the way of people’s asking for help in ways big and small.
“These kinds of expectations in our heads can create barriers that might not be warranted,” said Xuan Zhao, a co-author of the study and a psychologist and research scientist with SPARQ, a behavioral science research center at Stanford University.
In one experiment, Dr. Zhao and her co-author recruited 100 participants at a public botanical garden who were given the task of asking strangers to take their photo at a particularly picturesque spot. Before doing so, the askers anticipated how difficult or awkward it would feel for strangers to say “no” to their request. They also guessed how those who agreed to take the photos might feel after.
The researchers then asked the strangers who snapped photos how they had felt about helping out and discovered a discrepancy: Those asking for the photo underestimated how willing strangers were to help and overestimated how inconvenienced they felt by helping. (Only four people declined.) They also underestimated how good the strangers would feel after helping out.
In another experiment, 198 participants were asked to recall a recent instance when they had either asked for or offered help. Their experiences ran the gamut: writing a letter of recommendation for graduate school, showing someone how to use a parking meter, providing emotional support to a friend in a toxic romantic relationship.
Those who had helped someone after being asked to do so answered questions about how willing they felt to do so, while those who had asked for help guessed how willing they thought the person helping them had been. Overall, those who had asked for help believed that their helpers were less willing to assist than the helpers later said they were.
The researchers acknowledged in their study that their experiment in the botanical garden had tested a relatively simple request that could easily be fulfilled and that more difficult requests — or even ones that were morally questionable — might prompt a different response. They also noted that there were cultural differences in how asking for and giving help might be perceived. They hope to see future research looking at those types of questions. But they believe their findings offer strong evidence that pessimistic expectations around asking for help are often misplaced.
“We feel good making a positive difference in other people’s lives,” Dr. Zhao said. “Helping makes people feel better.”
HOW TO ASK FOR HELP
The new study joins a growing body of research that suggests we tend to undervalue the power of “prosocial” behaviors, or acting in ways that are kind and helpful toward others, often to the detriment of our physical and emotional health.
A study published in July found that casually reaching out to a friend, even with just a quick text, means more than we realize. An August study led by Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who was also co-author on the new study about helping, found we tend to underestimate the power of engaging in simple gestures of kindness, like buying someone a cup of coffee.
There are a variety of physical and mental health benefits of helping others, including the so-called helper’s high, which refers to the emotional and even physiological benefits associated with giving to others, including lower levels of stress hormones. A study conducted earlier in the Covid pandemic found that engaging in helpful behaviors, like buying masks, hand sanitizer or food for others, improved the helper’s sense of connection and meaning.
Because actually asking for help can feel uncomfortable, experts say practice is important. Wayne Baker, a professor with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and author of “All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success,” encourages people to be deliberate about making a thoughtful request.
Dr. Baker suggested asking yourself: “What is your objective? What are you trying to accomplish?” He did not work on the new research but said he was not at all surprised by the conclusion that people tend to underestimate others’ willingness and ability to lend a hand.
Dr. Baker promotes what he calls the “SMART” system for asking for help. It was designed for workplace settings, but he believes it is applicable across contexts. As much as possible, requests should be:
■ Meaningful (so all parties know why you are asking)
■ Action oriented
It can also be helpful to give people an “out” up front, particularly for a bigger request, said Lizzie Post, a co-president of the Emily Post Institute and a great-great-granddaughter of the renowned etiquette expert whose name the institute bears. If, for example, you are asking a grandparent to watch your children for several days, Ms. Post suggested you might say something like: “Hey, Mom, it would be great if you can, but no pressure if you can’t. We will be able to find someone else.”
As much as possible, express gratitude afterward, whether with a handwritten thank you note, a heartfelt text or email, or an in-person thank you, Ms. Post advised.
“It could be anything, but expressing that gratitude and making sure you don’t miss it when someone is generous toward you is important,” she said, and it might help assuage the feeling that you have imposed on someone by asking for their assistance.
But as the new research suggests, people are generally happy to lend a hand, and asking for help is not as burdensome as we might imagine.
“Our research provides this comfort,” Dr. Zhao said, “that you might be really underestimating how willing others are to help.”
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