Just Ask! (Why We Underestimate How Often People Say “Yes”)

Actual photo of me as a young magician

I’ll go ahead and out myself…I’ve had a lifelong love of magic tricks. Growing up, I performed magic shows, worked at a magic shop, and invented tricks of my own. As much as I enjoyed magic, though, there was one thing I hated: “strolling” magic. This is when a magician is hired to just kind of…you know, mingle. I’d be at some party or festival, and my job would be to just go up to people and ask, “I’m a magician! You want to see some magic?”

I hated all of this because I hated the approach. That moment of  asking if they wanted to see some magic. The fear of rejection was strong in me, and every time, it seemed like a certainty that a would-be audience would give me one look and say, “Not today, magic boy!”[1]  As far as I recall, nobody was ever this rude. That’s just how insecurity works. More often than not, though, people would kindly let me lightly blow on a deck of cards as if that were the moment when the laws of physics broke down, bringing their much-beloved 9 of Hearts to the top of the deck. Still, I would anticipate sure rejection before every approach.

It turns out that this isn’t just a quirk of my own psychology[2]  Well, the magic thing is. nor is it purely a phenomenon in the world of strolling magic. Have you ever needed something from a stranger? Needed to borrow her phone, ask for directions, or give her a hug as part of an elaborate scavenger hunt? Those moments can be filled with doubt, and we often expect the worse. But are we accurate?

New research shows that we sell ourselves short when it comes to asking people for a favor. Recently, Vanessa Bohns presented a summary of her research on this topic, and it paints a more hopeful picture of our ability to influence than we give ourselves credit for.

Asking to Borrow a Cell Phone

influence_phoneLet’s say you needed to borrow someone’s cell phone. You need a backstory? Fine–you got caught up listening to old episodes of the Here We Are podcast on your flight to California, and it drained your battery but you still need to call your friend so he can pick you up. Plausible enough for you?

How many people do you think you’d have to ask before someone let you borrow his or her phone to make a call?

In one study, researchers asked people a similar question. Instead, though, participants estimated how many people they’d have to approach before people would agree to lend them their phones. On average, the participants guessed that they’d have to ask about 10 people.

Then the participants actually went out and tried to get three people to lend them their phones! This way we can see whether they were accurate in their guesses. As it turns out, it only took approaching an average of 6 people to get 3 people to lend their cell phones. In other words, people underestimated how willing other people would be to help them out.

Asking for a Naughty Favor

Okay, so people are more willing to lend us their phones than we’d expect, but how far does it go? What about asking people to do something ethically questionable? In another study, Bohns and her colleagues considered the most serious crime in American society: defacing library books.

influence_libraryThe participants in this study learned that their job was to get someone to write the word “pickle” in a library book. Devious? Dastardly? All of the above. Their strategy would be to say that they were playing a prank on someone but needed to have the word written in handwriting that was not their own.

As with the cell phone study, the researchers asked participants to guess how many people they’d have to approach before getting people to agree to vandalize the library book. On average, participants guessed that they’d have to approach about 11 people before getting 3 people to agree.

Then they went out and actually tried to get people to write in the book. They were met with reactions like “I gotta vandalize this pretty book?” and “Pickle? Are you sure? It’s a good book.”[3]  These are, in fact, real responses, which are reported verbatim in Table 2 of the paper. I just like that these utterances are recorded as part of scientific record in an academic journal. In sharp contrast to their expectations, it only took asking an average of 5 people before 3 people had agreed to vandalize the book. Again, people’s estimates were significantly more pessimistic than the reality.

Why Are We So Wrong About the Power of Asking?

It’s pretty clear by now that we sell ourselves short when it comes to knowing how likely people are to help us. But why? How did we get to be so out of touch with reality?

At least part of the problem is that we forget how uncomfortable it can be to say “no” to someone. If I came up to you and asked you to sign my petition to promote environmentalism, you’d feel like a jerk saying no to me.[4]  As you should! You might feel like you’re offending me, implicitly telling me that you disagree with my values. So instead, you go along with it.

As Bohns puts it: “many people agree to things–even things they would prefer not to do–simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.'”

But even though this is the case, we tend not to think about it when we’re so sure that people will reject us. In fact, the less we consider how awkward it is to say “no” to someone, the more wrong we are about how many people will help us out.

Just Ask!

Again, the key finding in these studies is that we underestimate how likely people are to say “yes” when we ask for a favor. And it’s not just cell phones and literary misdemeanors! Studies have shown that people underestimate others’ willingness to complete questionnaires, donate to a charity, provide directions, and lie on a signed document.

What’s striking isn’t just that we’re so wrong about other people, but also that other people are so likely to say “yes”! Across all of these studies, people’s actual likelihood of agreeing to lend a cell phone, give directions, etc. hovers around 50 – 60%.

So even though you might feel discouraged, it’s worth asking the simple question if you need help from someone.

In high school I remember reading (the introduction to) a book called The Aladdin Factor[5]  I got it from the library but I did not write “pickle” in it!. Its whole point was that the only thing separating you from what you want is the courage to ask for it. It’s a concept that’s stuck with me, and although I’m no longer in situations where I have to ask strangers if they’d like to see a coin magically turn into a slightly different coin, this research has given me greater confidence when it comes to approaching strangers when I need to.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  As far as I recall, nobody was ever this rude. That’s just how insecurity works.
2.  Well, the magic thing is.
3.  These are, in fact, real responses, which are reported verbatim in Table 2 of the paper. I just like that these utterances are recorded as part of scientific record in an academic journal.
4.  As you should!
5.  I got it from the library but I did not write “pickle” in it!

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