Ask Again, and You Shall Possibly Receive

It sometimes seems that our evolutionary ancestors would be turning in their primitive Neanderthal graves if they knew how often we fail to take advantage of the awesome social abilities we’ve developed. Case in point: people don’t ask for help as much as they should. Despite our altruistic social norms and the ability to communicate via Snapchat, people are surprisingly content to lug 12 bags of groceries or study for a physics midterm all by themselves.

Why aren’t we more willing to seek help? One possibility is that people underestimate the chance help will be given. A new study led by Stanford’s Daniel Newark examines if and how this might happen in one specific type of situation — when a help-seeker makes a second request for help after an initial request is turned down.

Newark and his team believed there were two reasons people denied help would underestimate the chance they would receive it if they asked again. First, they speculated that help-seekers would underestimate how uncomfortable it is to turn down a second request. Studies have shown that people feel pressure to say “yes,” and such pressure is likely to be greater when they’ve already said “no.” But when somebody turns down your request for help, your rarely consider how the decision made them feel. So while a help-seeker sees an initial denial as a sign there’s little anguish over saying “no,” a person receiving a second request faces even more anguish due to the fact that they’ve already said “no” once.

The second reason we’re likely to be bearish about receiving help is that people tend to attribute the actions of others to unchangeable dispositional factors rather than the specific situation. So when somebody refuses to help, it’s assumed that they’re just not very generous, not that they had a good reason to say “no.” The result is that people will consistently underestimate the generosity of those who deny a request for help.

After an initial survey experiment found support for their hypotheses, the researchers sent participants to a college campus to ask people to fill out a 1-page survey (first request) and then mail a letter (second request). Prior to going out into the field participants predicted how likely potential helpers would be to consent to their requests. It turned out participants were quite good at predicting whether people would respond to the initial request. Participants thought 34% would consent, and in reality 33% consented. But as the researchers predicted, participants failed to foresee how people would respond to a second request after they denied the first request. Participants predicted an initial denial would lead to a “yes” only 18% of the time, but 43% of potential helpers ended up agreeing to the second request after turning down the first one.

Two follow-up experiments in which participants imagined being a helper or a help-seeker confirmed the initial findings. Once again, help-seekers underestimated the likelihood that a helper would agree to help after turning down an earlier request. In addition, the experiments provided support for the role of discomfort and dispositional attributions. After being told their initial request was turned down, help-seekers and helpers rated the helpers dispositional “helpfulness” and the discomfort helpers would feel from saying “no” to a second request. As predicted, help-seekers rated the helpers as less helpful and thought they would feel less discomfort.

One question that remains is whether to tendency to underestimate the likelihood of help differs across cultures. A Western culture that emphasizes individuality and self-sufficiency may foster the belief that others are unlikely to help. However, in a collectivist culture where being denied help is less common, an initial denial could lead somebody to believe that a second request would surely be granted.

It’s also worth considering whether underestimating the likelihood of help could be a good thing. In an individualistic society, such beliefs might encourage you to figure out how to take care of things on your own. Being denied help can also be a painful experience, and if such pain is significantly greater than the utility of being helped, in the long run being discouraged from asking for help could lead to higher well-being.

But for most people grinding their way through the day, the lesson from the study is obvious. If somebody refuses to do a favor for you, don’t hesitate to ask them again. Many downtrodden cavemen were booted from their tribes to create the social norms that make a potential helper more likely to say “yes.”

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
Newark, D.A., Flynn, F.J., & Bohns, V.K. (2013). Once Bitten, Twice Shy
The Effect of a Past Refusal on Expectations of Future Compliance Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613490967


One Response to Ask Again, and You Shall Possibly Receive

  1. Michael says:

    This seems a very individualistic conclusion for a post about altruistic norms. Is it really OK to take advantage of someone’s discomfort when they might have perfectly good reasons for saying no the first time?!

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