Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Helping me help you

December 27th, 2010

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.

4 comments on 'Helping me help you'

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  1. Allan McKeown

    27 Dec 10 at 3:22 pm

    I believe that we are genetically inclined to want to help a stranger in need. We are also genetically inclined to be wary of possible danger. Is the person wanting to use my phone planning on stealing it/mugging me etc? A request will demand quick assessment of the situation and almost instant decision making. Hopefully we get it right!
    Your example used Times Square – I hear that New Yorkers are very friendly so that makes it easy to decide! Merry Christmas Carol – thanks for the posts!


    Carol Reply:

    You’re right about the instant decision-making, and we’re apparently very bad at predicting which way other people will jump. How do we give everywhere the reputation of Times Square?

    Merry Christmas to you too, Allan — and thanks for this and all your other comments!


  2. Peter Smith

    29 Dec 10 at 6:31 am

    An interesting study. A few days ago you talked about how we are more likely to help someone “like us”, but if you go to any large city the most frequent request for help comes from “pan-handlers/street people” i.e. people we think of as not like us. I’ve tried several times to understand what causes me to give or not give, and I’ve watched other people respond to these requests as well. I’ve heard that having a dog increases the number and amount of donations given, which says something about our values. But what other factors influence us?



    Carol Reply:

    It’s a complicated issue, isn’t it? As you say, there are many factors involved and it’s hard to untangle them. I’ll have to look up the dog question — there are probably studies — so, thanks for the idea as well as the comment, Peter. (And I have a half-written email to you that I promise I’ll finish some day!)


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