Most people underestimate the likelihood that requests for help will be granted, particularly after experiencing previous refusals, according to Stanford’s Daniel Newark.
He collaborated with Stanford colleague Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake Bohns of University of Waterloo in four studies that examined help-seekers’ beliefs about how past refusals affect future compliance.
They showed that help-seekers were more likely to believe that a previous refusal would be followed by another refusal in response to a similar request in the future.
This seems a logical extension of “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
However, this is not supported by Newark and team’s findings.
Help-seekers actually underestimated the actual compliance rate of potential helpers who had previously refused to help, suggesting most people agree with a subsequent request, often to reduce discomfort of rejecting others’ overture for help.
Participants estimated they would need to ask about 10 people in order to have three agree to lend their mobile phones for brief calls.
In fact, these volunteers needed to ask only six people for help, 40% fewer than expected, suggesting that most people have a cautious or pessimistic bias about the likelihood that others will provide assistance.
Volunteers requested two favors of strangers on the Stanford campus: Complete a brief survey and take a letter to a nearby post office.
Help seekers predicted that people who refused the first request of completing the survey would be much less likely to take the letter to the post office.
More people agreed to the second request than to the first request, showing that after people refused a request, they were more likely to agree the second time.
Requestors tend to “anchor” on the first refusal, and hesitate to make a second request.
However, this finding suggests that requestors have a greater chance of success after initial refusal, and that this is the time to muster resilience and persistence.
Bohns and Flynn explained that requestors and potential help-seekers analyze help requests from different perspectives: Requestors focus on the magnitude of the “ask,” whereas potential helpers consider the inconvenience costs of saying yes in relation to the interpersonal and self-image costs of saying no.
Newark and team suggest that requestors expand the pool of those they ask, not just those who reliably and consistently agree.
These individuals are typically overburdened by requests, and those who are more selective in their assistance are underutilized — and may be willing to assist.
Bohns and Flynn previously demonstrated that potential helpers tend to underestimate help-seekers’ discomfort and embarrassment in asking for assistance, so may be less willing to help underutilized formal support programs.
The researchers found that the most effective way to increase help-seeking is to encourage helpers to focus on reducing help-seekers’ subjective discomfort in asking rather than advocating the practical benefits of asking for help.
More recently, Bohns collaborated with University of Waterloo colleagues Mahdi Roghanizad and Amy Xu to extend this focus on the impact of interpersonal discomfort in non-altruistic situations such as deciding whether to commit an unethical or illegal act.
People who observe and influence the unethical act but don’t participate (“instigators”) underestimated their influence over those who actually commit the asocial acts, according to Bohns and team.
Volunteers enlisted people they didn’t know to tell a small untruth (“white lie”) or commit a small act of vandalism after predicting the ease of enlisting others in these acts.
In related investigations, online participants responded to hypothetical vignettes about buying alcohol for children, and taking office supplies home for personal use.
In all studies, influential bystanders underestimated their influence on others when they suggested engaging in unethical acts.
Further, interpersonal discomfort often caused participants to commit the suggested act to avoid a decision and action that contradicted the instigator’s suggestion.
These results suggest that most people inaccurately estimate their influence – for good or ill, particularly in situations that can evoke interpersonal discomfort.
At the same time, Bohns and Flynn reported on related finding that employees’ systematic underestimate their influence over others in the workplace.
This pessimistic bias can limit employees’ willingness to:
- Lead business transformation initiatives
- Recognize personal contributions to others’ performance issues
- Voice concerns about unethical workplace practices or wrongdoing.
Most employees underestimate their potential influence on others and organizations, and expect their efforts to be futile.
Bohns and Flynn argue that this underestimation bias may be mitigated or reduced by five moderating variables:
- Comparative judgments
- Objectification of an influence target
- Actual degree of personal influence in contrast to perceived influence
- Means of influence, ranging across incentives, suggestions, reinforcements, punishments
- Organizational culture.
These findings provide encouragement to ask for what you want, even after rejection.
In addition, they suggest that you have more influence over others than you expect, whether when asking for help, a sale, or collusion in a questionable act: “Use with caution.”
-*How do you assess your likelihood of getting what you want when you ask?
-*How likely are others to influence you by evoking social discomfort to increase your compliance?
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