Why You Should Always Offer to Help

What can a box of potatoes teach us about the wonders of altruism? A whole lot, it turns out. A new study by researchers at Rutgers University examined perceptions about the weight of a box of potatoes when people expected to lift it themselves or with a partner. They found that estimates of the box’s weight by subjects expecting to lift it with a partner were significantly lower than the estimates of subjects expecting to lift it by themselves. It seems the level of anticipated effort was able to influence perceptions about the properties of the box.

To further test the role of anticipated effort a follow up study was conducted in which some subjects were given an ostensibly incapacitated partner wearing a sling and a neck brace. These subjects could not envision much future help, and as expected, they did not perceive the boxes to be as light as the subjects given a healthy partner.

If the effects of expected help on physical properties like weight can be broadened to abstract properties like difficulty, the study has a slew of important implications. Broadly speaking, the study shows that offering help can encourage somebody to do something even if you don’t actually help. The offer itself can reduce anticipated effort and make the task to appear easier, and that can convince somebody to undertake an endeavor they otherwise would have avoided.

More specifically, the study illustrates how crucial it is for educational institutions to make it known that help is available. One of the main reasons kids avoid attempting to do their schoolwork is because it’s hard, and hard things tend to lead to anxiety. By making an effort to ensure kids are aware of tutoring services or after-class time with teachers, schools can lower the perceived difficulty of assignments and potentially increase effort.
Doerrfeld, A., Sebanz, N., & Shiffrar, M. (2011). Expecting to lift a box together makes the load look lighter Psychological Research DOI: 10.1007/s00426-011-0398-4

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