Imagine you’re stuck in Times Square and you’re running late for a doctor’s appointment. You try hailing a taxi, but you’re not having much luck, so you decide to call your doctor to let her know you’re running late. You see someone who is just about to put his cell phone away, so you approach him. “Can I use your cell phone to make a phone call?” you ask.
What percentage of people do you think would agree to this request? Think about it for a second.
Let’s reverse the scenario. Imagine someone else is stuck in Times Square and he’s running late for a doctor’s appointment. He tries hailing a taxi, but he’s not having much luck, so he decides to call his doctor to let her know he’s running late. He sees that you are just about to put your cell phone away, so he approaches you. “Can I use your cell phone to make a phone call?” he asks. Now what percentage of people do you think would agree to this request?
These scenarios are identical but people respond quite differently to them. When Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake asked study participants to answer either of these questions, they found that those asked about the first scenario expected 34% of people to agree – but those asked about the second scenario expected 50% agreement. That’s a big difference considering that the only change was whether people viewed the situation from the perspective of the person asking for help or the one being asked.
Flynn and Lake did several other experiments (published in the same paper and another one) and found that we consistently underestimate how likely other people are to grant requests for help. In some cases, people’s real willingness to perform a favour for a stranger was twice as high as study participants asking the favour expected. But the reverse is also true: people offering help consistently overestimate the likelihood that people will take them up on their offer.
It’s partly about the emotions involved. In Flynn’s and Lake’s studies, people who were asked for help believed that the act of requesting something caused less discomfort and embarrassment than did those who were asking. When we’re not the ones with hat in hand, we forget how hard it is.
The unfortunate result is that when we offer help, we downplay the difficulty the recipients may have in accepting it. If we simply make clear that help is available if someone asks for it (as with most programs that offer assistance ), we’ll have fewer takers than we expect – and might conclude that the program is ineffective or shouldn’t be funded.
This means that if we want to actually provide something to other people, we have to be proactive about offering it. “If you need anything, just call” is much less useful than “I have free time right now; what are you doing that I could help with?” Similarly, we need to find ways to directly approach the people we want to help with programs and services, rather than waiting for them to come to us.
I’m putting this into action today. If you’re reading this and you’ve never commented on any of these posts, I’m asking you to do so – even if it’s just “Good post” or “Weaker than usual” or “How much did you spike your eggnog before writing this drivel?” I truly appreciate your help.
FYI: I’ll be taking Thursday, December 30th off as a holiday break. So, no post that day, but I’ll be back on Monday, January 3rd.