Go ahead, ask for help. People are happy to give it

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.
Go ahead, ask for help. People are happy to give it

WASHINGTON: Many things can get in the way of asking others for help: Fear of rejection. Fear of imposing. The pullyourself-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.”

The new study joins a growing body of research that suggests we tend to undervalue the power of “prosocial” behaviours, or acting in ways that are kind and helpful toward others, often to the detriment of our physical and emotional health.

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