Most people underestimate the likelihood that requests for help will be granted, particularly after experiencing previous refusals, according to Stanford’s Daniel Newark and Francis Flynn with Vanessa Lake Bohns of University of Waterloo.
Help-seekers were more likely to believe that a previous refusal would be followed by another refusal to a similar request.
However, help-seekers underestimated the compliance rate of potential helpers who previously refused assistance.
This suggests that most people agree with a subsequent request, often to reduce discomfort of rejecting others’ overtures for help.
Participants estimated they would need to ask 10 people to have three agree to lend their mobile phones for brief calls.
In fact, these volunteers had to ask only six people for help before it was given, 40% fewer than expected.
Most people have a pessimistic bias about the likelihood that others will provide assistance, they concluded.
Volunteers requested two favors of strangers: Complete a brief survey and take a letter to a nearby post office.
Help seekers predicted that people who refused the first request to complete the survey would be 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.
Requesters tended to “anchor” on the first refusal, and hesitated to make a second request.
However, this finding suggests that requesters have a greater chance of success after initial refusal, so it’s advisable to muster resilience and persistence.
Requesters and help-seekers analyzed requests using different criteria: Requesters focused on the magnitude of the “ask,” whereas potential helpers receiving the request considered the inconvenience costs of saying “yes” compare with the interpersonal and self-image costs of saying “no.”
Requesters benefit from expanding 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.
Potential helpers underestimated help-seekers’ discomfort and embarrassment in asking for assistance, in previous studies by the team.
This may result in less willingness to help underutilized formal support programs.
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.
Bohns extended this focus on the impact of interpersonal discomfort in deciding whether to commit an unethical act in research with University of Waterloo colleagues Mahdi Roghanizad and Amy Xu.
People who observed the unethical act but didn’t participate (“instigators”) underestimated their influence over those who committed the asocial acts.
Volunteers enlisted people they didn’t know to tell a small untruth or to 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.
Bystanders underestimated their impact on others when they suggested engaging in unethical acts.
Further, interpersonal discomfort caused participants to commit the asocial act to avoid conflict.
These results suggest that most people inaccurately estimate their influence, particularly in situations that can evoke interpersonal discomfort.
At the same time, Bohns and Flynn reported that employees’ systematically underestimate their influence over others in the workplace.
Most employees expect their efforts to be futile.
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.
This underestimation bias may be mitigated by variations in:
- Comparative judgments,
- Objectifying an influence target,
- Actual degree of personal influence compared to perceived influence,
- Means of influence, ranging across incentives, suggestions, reinforcements, punishments,
- Organizational culture.
These findings suggest the benefit of asking for what you want, even after rejection and that you have more influence over others than you expect.
-*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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