You Can Often Get What You Want, Stanford Researchers Say

Successful business woman with arms outstretched

New research at Stanford verifies the old adage, “ask and you shall receive.” A series of studies shows that people tend to greatly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for help.

“No Man Is an Island,” was the title of John Donne’s famous poem, and those words have since been lyricized and quoted a million times. He meant that none of us can ever truly be separate or independent from the rest of humanity; we are an interdependent species. We aid each other and we need each other from the very start; for infants to thrive, they must be loved, given affection and cared for.

Still, asking for help—even when we desperately need it—is one of the hardest things many of us will do. As Daniel Siegel, M.D., explains, the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex causes us to feel physical pain from social rejection. (Ever experienced a pain in your heart after heartbreak?) All animals are wired to seek freedom from pain even before they seek pleasure. Asking for help and being turned away can create a terrible feeling in the mind, and sometimes, the body.

But is it possible that because of this fear, this avoidance of rejection (and therefore pain), people dramatically underestimate the likelihood that others will say yes when asked for help? According to Francis Flynn, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the answer is yes. Flynn and his colleagues undertook experiments centered on the often-necessary undertaking of asking for help, and arrived at some interesting answers.

“Our research should encourage people to ask for help and not assume that others are disinclined to comply,” Flynn said. “People are more willing to help than you think, and that can be important to know when you’re trying to get the resources you need to get a job done, when you’re trying to solicit funds, or what have you.”

It Can Be Just as Hard to Say No

Imagine you work for a nonprofit and it is your job to raise money for the organization’s mission of helping impoverished children. You’re preparing to ask local businesses to “sponsor” or donate large sums of money to your organization’s cause—a worthy one, as anyone could agree. When you think about your obstacle, you imagine all of their reasons for saying no: the economy is still bad, they gave last year, they’re already giving to someone else. What you are not aware of is that the people you ask directly are thinking of something else entirely. Rather than the reasons they should say no, they are thinking of how difficult it will be to turn you down.

When asking for help, people focus more on the other person’s “costs of saying yes.” However, truth is, the person being asked is  more focused  on their cost of saying no: how uncomfortable it will feel to say no, what others will think if they decline or the guilt they may feel for having done so.

Direct vs. Indirect Requests

When the study’s organizers conducted experiments to find out how people reacted to direct vs. indirect requests, they learned something more. When a person directly asks another for help of some kind (e.g., monetary, request to use a cell phone, request to fill out a questionnaire, etc.), they are far more likely to hear a yes than if they ask for help through some indirect means, such as via a flyer, e-mail, or letter correspondence. These indirect means take away the degree of the requestee’s discomfort, making it easier for him or her to say no. If you need to ask for help of some kind, ask directly—face to face.

Asking Someone Who Has Turned You Down Before

If you’ve already asked and been turned down, it’s likely that you will hesitate before asking this same person for help in the future, but Stanford’s study showed that those who have already said no are more likely to say yes if asked a second time. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it follows the above discussion of discomfort: we’re all only willing to feel so much of it. It can be hard to turn someone down. Moral: if you find yourself needing help—and we all do from time to time—just ask.




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