A social psychologist explains why we should ask for help more often

People wildly underestimate the odds that others will help us, says social psychologist Heidi Grant. From strangers to colleagues to friends, we think people are likely to reject our request, and that leads to people not asking for help as much as we should. So many people need help and are afraid to ask, she says.

Grant is the author of Reinforcements: How To Get People to Help You (Harvard Business Review). The Verge spoke to her about why we hate asking for help, myths about helping, and the things we do that make it less likely others will want to help us.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Author Heidi Grant.
Photo by Francine Daveta

The first part of your book states that “asking for help is the worst,” which I think a lot of people would agree with. Why is it so hard to ask? Is it because we think we’re being a bother and people will reject us?

We’re reluctant to ask for help in part because we feel like there will be a pretty good chance we’ll be rejected. So, why do we think we’re going to be rejected? It comes from a failure of perspective-taking. When I’m asking you for help, I’m focused on how effortful or unpleasant the request is, how busy the person is, how annoying it’ll be for them to help me. All of that makes me think they’re not going to say yes.

What I’m not thinking about are the costs of saying no, and they really are quite high. Most human beings buy into the idea that good people are helpful, and so most people don’t like to say no to a request for help. We may think we’re undermining a relationship. There’s awkwardness and potential guilt. We would rather say yes, and so studies show that even with perfect strangers, we tend to underestimate by about half how likely people are to help us. Not only that, but they give better-quality help than we expect.

We seem to also misunderstand who will help us, right? You tell a story in the book about asking someone for a blurb for your first book, and you didn’t get a response. And you obviously didn’t want to ask again for a second book, but he gave you a great blurb.

We tend to write people off when they’ve rejected us in the past. They may have various reasons, but we immediately assume they didn’t want to help us. But that’s probably not the case. There may well have been circumstances that prevented them from helping at the time.

Research shows that people who have rejected you in the past are actually more likely to help you than other people. When I reject you and you offer me another opportunity to help, if I can, I jump at it. I want to feel better. I want to repair the relationship. It’s this big untapped resource that a lot of people have. On that note, another obstacle is that we think people will think less of us. But, in fact, evidence suggests that people like us more for asking for help. Basically, the idea is: if I help you, I want to like you. We want to be consistent in what we do, so we believe that if I helped someone, I must like them. So not only should we not worry about people thinking less of us, we should be thinking about that as a positive.

You talk about a study in which asking “can you do me a favor?” and then asking “can you fill out this questionnaire?” was more effective at getting strangers to help than just asking about the questionnaire directly. But then people felt resentful. What are the things to avoid?

Anything that feels controlling or manipulative. For help to feel rewarding to give, it needs to feel autonomous. It needs to feel like you’re doing it because you want to, so I feel like a good person and feel connected and feel that my desire is coming from within me. If I feel like I’m helping you because I have to because I’ve been controlled or manipulated in some way, that takes away my ability to feel good about helping you.

I have to, not because it says something about who I am. There are lots of things we do by accident that make people feel controlled. The “can you do me a favor” tactic is controlling, I’m forcing you to commit to helping me before you know what it is, and then you feel obligated because you say you would do me a favor.

Another thing that backfires is profusely apologizing for asking. You’re so focused on your own feeling of apologizing, and then I’m starting to feel icky, and it robs me of my ability to enjoy helping because you’re so busy putting yourself down about needing help. Mixing motivations doesn’t work either — like when you ask for help and then offer payment or another reward. Intuitively, you think that offering a reward will make someone more motivated, but that doesn’t feel authentic anymore. It feels like you’re doing something for the reward, not because you want to help.

So what are the best things to do?

Well, you have to ask. That seems obvious, but a lot of us feel our need for help should be obvious to others, and it’s just not. Other people are busy and their attention is limited. Next, make sure it’s clear that you want help. People are reluctant to offer unasked help because people can get offended.

Be very direct, and be very explicit not only that you want help, but exactly what it is that you are asking for. The thing that drives me the most bonkers and I always say no is when people email me or reach out on LinkedIn and say, “I’d love to connect.” Or something like they “want to chat” or “pick my brain.”

I have no idea who this person is, and I always say no because obviously they don’t want to just “connect.” They have an agenda, whether it’s information or a job or an introduction. But I don’t know what specifically they want, and that puts me in a situation where a) I don’t know if I can give you the thing you want because I don’t know what it is, and b) I don’t know if I want to give you this thing, and I can’t even evaluate it because you’re not telling me what it is! I don’t want to have an awkward interaction with a stranger who is going to ask me for something and I don’t know what it is, so I avoid the whole thing. Vague requests are just terrible.

Another common mistake is making a request to a big group of people and hoping one of them will help you. Psychologists call this “diffusion of responsibility.” The irony is that the more people who can help you, the less anyone feels like they have to. So it’s worth the time to send a bunch of individual emails to people that feel like individual emails.

What do people get out of helping?

Human beings are basically wired to want to give help. It’s one of the richest sources of self-esteem, and it has the potential to be a real win-win. Helping is rewarding for people because they like to be supportive and connect with other people.

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