How to Ask for Help

Many things can stand in the way of asking for help: Fear of rejection. Fear of imposing. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology so ingrained in American culture.

But new research suggests many of us underestimate how willingly — even happy! – Let others help.

The study, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, involved six small experiments involving more than 2,000 participants — all designed to compare the perspectives of those seeking help and those of the helpers.

In all experiments, those seeking help repeatedly underestimated how helpful friends and strangers were and how good the helpers felt afterwards.

And the researchers think these miscalibrated expectations could prevent people from asking for help in ways big and small.

“These kinds of expectations in our minds can create barriers that may not be warranted,” said Xuan Zhao, study co-author and psychologist and researcher at SPARQ, a behavioral sciences research center at Stanford University.

In an experiment, Drs. Zhao and her co-author asked 100 participants at a public botanical garden to ask strangers to photograph them in a particularly scenic spot. Beforehand, the questioners had an inkling of how difficult or awkward it would be for strangers to say “no” to their request. They also guessed how those who agreed to take the photos would feel.

The researchers then asked the strangers who took photos how they felt about helping, and found a discrepancy: Those who asked for the photo underestimated how helpful strangers were and overestimated how uncomfortable it made them felt help. (Only four people declined.) They also underestimated how good the strangers would feel after helping.

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In another experiment, 198 participants were asked to recall a recent instance where they either asked for help or offered it. Her experiences have been varied: writing a letter of recommendation for grad 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 ready they felt to do so, while those who asked for help rated how ready they thought the person helping them was. Overall, those seeking help believed their helpers were less willing to help than the helpers later said they were.

The researchers acknowledged in their study that their experiment at the botanical gardens had tested a relatively simple query that could easily be satisfied, and that more difficult queries — or even ones that were morally questionable — might lead to a different answer. They also noted that there are cultural differences in how asking for help and giving help might be perceived. They hope for future research addressing these kinds of questions. But they believe their findings provide strong evidence that pessimistic expectations about asking for help are often misplaced.

“We feel good about making a positive difference in other people’s lives,” said Dr. zhao “Helping makes people feel better.”

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The new study joins a growing body of research suggesting we tend to underestimate the power of “prosocial” behaviors, or being kind and helpful towards others, often at the expense of our physical and emotional health.

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A study published in July found that casually reaching out to a friend, even if it’s just a quick text, means more than we think. An August study led by Nicholas Epley, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, who also co-authored the new study on helping, found that we tend to underestimate the power of simple gestures underestimating friendliness. like buying someone a cup of coffee.

There are a variety of physical and mental health benefits of helping others, including what is known as the helper high, which refers to the emotional and even physiological benefits associated with giving to others, including lower levels of stress hormones. A study conducted earlier during the Covid pandemic found that engaging in helpful behaviors, such as buying masks, hand sanitizer or groceries for others, improved the helper’s sense of connection and importance.

Because actually asking for help can feel uncomfortable, experts say exercise is important. Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and author of “All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success,” encourages people to make thoughtful requests.

dr Baker suggested asking yourself, “What is your goal? What are you trying to achieve?” He wasn’t working on the new research, but said he wasn’t at all surprised by the conclusion that people tend to underestimate others’ willingness and ability to extend a hand.

dr Baker promotes what he calls the “SMART” system of asking for help. It was designed for workplace environments, but he believes it’s applicable across contexts. Inquiries should be as broad as possible:

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It can also be helpful to let people “out” in advance, especially for larger requests, said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of the renowned etiquette expert whose name the institute bears. For example, if you’re asking grandparents to babysit your kids for a few days, Ms Post suggested saying something like, “Hey mom, it’d be great if you could, but no pressure if you can’t.” We’ll be able to find someone else.”

Afterwards, express your gratitude as much as possible, whether it’s with a handwritten thank you note, a heartfelt text or email, or a personal thank you, Ms. Post advised.

“It could be anything, but it’s important to express that gratitude and make sure you don’t miss it when someone is generous to you,” she said, and it might help soothe the feeling you’ve inflicted on someone , by asking for his help .

But as the new research shows, people are generally happy to help, and asking for help isn’t as tedious as we might make it out to be.

“Our research offers that comfort,” said Dr. Zhao, “You may really underestimate how willing others are to help.”

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