Ask For Help

From a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

People underestimated by as much as 50% the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help, across a range of requests occurring in both experimental and natural field settings. … Experimentally manipulating a person’s perspective (as help seeker or potential helper) could elicit this underestimation effect. … Help seekers were less willing than potential helpers were to appreciate the social costs of refusing a direct request for help.

We don’t like to ask for help, men especially, because asking threatens our status.  Believing that others won’t help lets us "sincerely" avoid asking.

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  • Robin, I’ve asked you before about good general textbooks, treatises, and journals on the general topic of status and how it affects human behavior. I’m having trouble finding them. Unlike the other topics you write frequently about (physics, economics, artificial intelligence, bayes theorem) there doesn’t seem to be a good general literature on the study of status -or at least, you haven’t pointed us to it yet.

  • I’d also appreciate a good reading list on the social psychology of status. I second Hopefully Anonymous requests…

  • gutzperson

    Hey all. There is quite an amusing book about Status called “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton. Not that academic but quite good and fun to read.

  • Thanks for the excellent article! Just had to tell you that I’ve written a book on this very subject – asking for help. I’m identifying the inability to ask for help or delegate because no one else can do it as well. I call this The Self Sufficiency Syndrome. And the name of my book is Help Is Not a Four-Letter Word: Why Doing It All Is Doing You In published by McGraw Hill.

    I’ll be happy to send you a copy if you’re interested. From the workshops I’m doing on the subject, I believe we have an epidemic on our hands that few are aware of.
    Thanks again,
    Peggy Collins

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  • What’s better, getting help and losing status or retaining status and losing help? I don’t really know. I suspect getting help, but what would be the argument for that? We overrate status nowadays because we have greater mobility in our present world, and don’t need to rely on any given person as much as we would in the Stone Age?

  • Dagon

    I’d very much like to see more analysis of status. It’s very clear that status has value, and it’s not necessarily irrational to forego some help if it costs some status.

    The bias to overcome is that it’s very hard to determine when the cost is justified, so I fall back on heuristic judgements. I’d love to see more research into how to value status-affecting actions.

  • Hopefully, for recent papers look at citations from this AER paper. Here is a classic book.

  • A danger in this result is that it is unlikely to be true for people who have achieved any modicum of spiritual or religious being. It is likely to be true ONLY of people still trapped in ego-mind entirely. They are still a statistical majority, and so it is the “norm,” but it is incorrect, and will horribly mislead you, to draw the conclusion that “we [all] don’t like to ask for help” — or indeed to proceed upon the assumption that all of the current study of psychology is really useful to the human race!

    I think there is also a confusion here of “ego” with “status.” Egoes become bound-up in the pursuit of what they believe will give them status, to be sure. But the question of asking for help does not really involve status issues, at least by the ethnographic literature of early in the last century.

    Status is a position of power over the disposition of goods and services in a tribe, and usually the position (like Big Man) was marked visually after a ceremony (like the potlatch,) by the reserved uses of a necklace of seashells or something. Then the idea was transferred within the literature to describe the position in the class structure of a more advanced traditional society such as an aristocracy — also marked visually, often after a ceremony.

    In both cases, the distinctive function is to organize the society, reduce transaction costs of getting things done, and present a path for you to advance through the same. People of higher status were expected to ask questions with impunity, and on the other hand were expected to know the definitive answers to important questions.

    You could also say that parents have high status to their children and so on, but this usage is a wider and somewhat unnecessary connotation.

    Indeed the idea was transferred further, to market capitalism, although with ever-less real import. Consequently there are now market “status symbols,” a sort of 1950’s term to describe rather laughingly the visual possessions such as shiny cars and gewgaws, clothing fashions, and various infantilisms.

    There exist, however, people of certain high status. Very often they have answered important questions, and they are often known by nearly everyone visually, although they may be dead. Einstein is a notable example.

    I suppose that, insofar as an egotist driving a Hummer to compensate for his physical inadequacies or psychological fears or to advertise his bank account might feel himself knocked-down a few pegs by having to ask directions, you could say that asking for help is a threat to his “status.” But surely this is stretching it. Really I think you mean “ego.”

  • Thanks for the article recommendation. I’m familiar with Goffman (I think I recommended his work to Eliezer months ago on this blog). I don’t know how much economists have looked at or tested Goffman’s ideas, but he’s been influential in feminist and critical race studies. Ironically (and this goes to the study of status in medical sociology, too) the recent discussion always seems to be couched in its own moral status heirarchies, as if this topic can only be discussed by a discussor purporting to help those adversely affected by status constructions. This is in contrast to other topics like distribution of wealth or religion, which have robust academic discssions not narrowly tied to how to change these distributions or to how bad they are. I’d like to see more survey literature in the field, incorporating the best recent insights and theories from the range of the social (and other) sciences.

  • Lakshmi

    So… asking for help and *getting it* takes a certain amount of people skills. If I can convince you to help me, I have exercised a kind of power over you, and I have increased the resources upon which *I* am able to draw (temporarily, at least). Is my status not *increased* when I am able to efficiently command resources to solve my problems? I also demonstrate the key survival trait of self-awareness when I know my limitations and am not inhibited in acknowledging them when doing so benefits me/mine.

    (Disclaimers: I’ve never understood the ‘male’ reluctance to ask for help. I haven’t read the journal article.)

  • Alan

    Robert Cialdini, in his book, Influence, has a chapter entitled “Social Proof.” If I am reading correctly, he suggests singling out an individual to provide assistance (i.e., call for help)in a hypothetical emergency, thereby placing the requestee in the role of rescuer. At some level, perhaps we wish to deny that we need help, even where it would be natural and appropriate to ask for it.

  • Hilarious, Lee A. Arnold.

  • Unnamed

    Robin, is the status & self-deception explanation from the article, or is that yours? Do they have any data that support that explanation over other possible explanations of the underestimation effect? We should be careful to distinguish hypotheses that sound plausible from those that have direct empirical support.

  • Doug S.

    “Asking” for help, and getting it, puts one in a subordinate position to the one doing the helping. Worse, it inflicts upon the one being helped an obligation to reciprocate, repaying the helper for his or her generosity.

    In order to maintain alpha status, assistance must appear to be the product of coercion, and not begging. The retinue doesn’t “help” the king, they serve and obey the king!

  • Many of the biases we discuss have genuine social value, and in overcoming them we risk paying a social price. However this particular issue of asking for help can actually be overcome in many situations without penalty, bringing about an immediate and significant increase in quality of life.

    In the olden days, everyone knew everyone else, and our interactions were all with people who knew each other. If you asked someone for help, word would get around, not least because the helper might frequently mention how he was able to help you out, thereby increasing his own appearance of competence and generosity. So you would in fact pay a price by having to ask for help, back then.

    But today, many of our interactions are with strangers, and there would be no such negative repercussions. If you get lost, and stop and ask someone for help, you’ll never see them again. The same thing happens at the store when shopping, or in a myriad of other social situations. Yet our instinctive reluctance to ask for help continues to hamper us even in these common modern environments, simply because similar situations were virtually absent in the distant past.

    By overcoming this bias, then, we can achieve real and immediate benefits, without paying the penalty that our instincts caution us about. Those old fears are obsolete, and once we realize that, we can put them behind us and ask for help often and even with minimal genuine need. Indeed one might imagine going so far as to abuse the kindness of strangers. Extravagant appeals for help can even be seen as a win-win situation, as the helpers may feel gratification and improved self esteem by having been able to render aid to a needy fellow citizen of humanity.

  • itchy

    I believe I ask for help about as much as the average guy, which means, not nearly as much as my wife would like me to. However, I don’t think this has anything to do with my expectations of getting help. I can’t think of a situation where I failed to ask for help because I didn’t think I’d get it.

    Instead, I think there are two main reasons (OK, maybe three):

    1. I don’t want to impose on someone if the task is something I can figure out for myself. The “helper” probably has more urgent situations to attend.

    2. Call it focused determination or call it narcissistic stubbornness, but I like to solve problems for myself, at least to the extent that I feel I’ve exhausted all reasonable approaches given the context of the problem.

    3. I’m shy.

  • “Ask for help”; very well. See link. It’s needed desperately.