Do you hesitate to ask people for favors simply because you assume they'll say no? A new study suggests others are far more likely to do your bidding than you probably think.
For 10 years, psychologist Vanessa K. Bohns, Ph.D., and colleagues from Cornell University asked hundreds of participants in multiple studies to pose random requests to over 14,000 strangers. (Among them: "Can I borrow your phone?" "Will you lie for more?" and, "Would you sponsor me in a race?")
She tracked whether study participants expected the strangers they approached to comply with their requests as well as the outcome of these participants' random asks. Consistently, she found not only that strangers were highly likely to say "yes" to a participant, but also that most participants massively underestimated their ability to make other people acquiesce to their appeals.
This was true even in cases where participants' solicitations were more questionable. One of Bohns's studies, for instance, had people ask strangers to "vandalize a purported library book by writing the word 'pickle' in pen on one of the pages." Despite voicing concerns about getting in trouble, 64 percent of strangers still agreed to wreck the pages.
All this led Bohns and her team to the conclusion "that people are overly pessimistic about their ability to get others to comply with their requests."
Why, then, does just saying what you want still seem so ominous? Many psychologists have blamed the stress of imposing on others as well as the fear of being rejected or exposed for having shortcomings we can't fix on our own. But Bohns says her studies don't find this to be the case. At least, not all the time.
More likely, she writes in the journal Psychological Science, "this phenomenon is the result of requesters' failure to appreciate how uncomfortable it would be for their targets to say 'no' to a request."
Translation: You probably don't realize just how awkward people feel turning you down. (Nor do you realize how much you might be able to take advantage of this.)
"[B]y refusing a request, one risks offending one's interaction partner — a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties," Bohns explains. "As a result, many people agree to things — even things they would prefer not to do — simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying 'no.'"
Saying "no" in person can also feel heck of a lot harder than saying "no" via email, Bohns points out. Same goes for text, which you probably get if you've ever digitally informed someone you weren't into anymore because it was "easier" than seeing their heart break in person.
If the prospect of being told "no" still freaks you out despite clear evidence you're less likely to hear it than you think, consider the research suggesting an initial "no" may actually work to your advantage. A few classic studies carried out by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini in the 1970s found that, in some cases, turning another person down makes people more likely to accept or say yes to that same person once the latter reiterates their request. (Psychologists call this "the door-in-the-face technique.")
So go ahead, ask other people to do you more favors and see for yourself just how much more help you get than you'd anticipated. (Just remember to return those favors to the people you'd like to keep in your life — since, studies show, reciprocity is required for any relationship to last more than a few moments.)
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