Reinforcements - why asking for help is difficult

The original (shorter) review of Reinforcements: How to get people to help you by Heidi Grant was published in the October edition of Professional Marketing magazine

Reinforcement can mean a) enlisting extra help and b) a process to establish a particular behaviour using reward. Cleverly, this short book addresses both. It’s stuffed with interesting and pragmatic social psychology insights.

The author asks why, when we know that humans are wired to want to help each other (the reciprocity principle – see links to Cialdini below), people feel so uncomfortable asking for assistance. She aims to remove the obstacles that get in the way of getting help and trigger the motivations that make people want to help.

The book is organised into three sections: why asking for help is so difficult, how to ask for help effectively and creating a culture of helpfulness. The latter being an essential component of any collaborative culture.

Why we feel uncomfortable asking for help

The author points out that we assume that our needs are more obvious than they are (the transparency illusion). She explains that neuroscience shows we experience social pain (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness threats) as acutely as physical pain which is why we are reluctant to ask. The idea of the brain experiencing social pain as real pain is explored further here:

There is overwhelming evidence that we seriously underestimate how likely others are to comply with a request for help – people are generally twice as likely to want to help. People also underestimate the amount of effort that people will put in when they do agree to help us.

She notes that a refusal to provide help when requested also causes social pain. Even more so if two or more requests are declined so people who reject a first request are more likely to help the second time around. This is one of the persuasion principles explored by Cialdini (see Psychologists talk of the “warm glow” that prosocial behaviour confers. People experience significant psychological discomfort when turning down a request for help.

She explores the four possible responses to a request for help: No, silence, grudging yes and enthusiastic yes.

How to ask for help effectively

Face-to-face requests are the most successful (I saw some research from HBR indicated up to 34 times more likely to be successful). She quotes Cialdini on the foot-in the-door technique, leveraging people’s sense of social responsibility, the power of cognitive dissonance and the need to relieve negative states.

When people feel autonomous and choose to help they are doing so for intrinsic motivation. She advises avoiding threats, surveillance, deadlines and other pressure which make people feel controlled. Asking people to pre-commit to a favour induces higher levels of helping.

Three types of reciprocity are examined – personal, relational and collective. The latter two occur without concern for immediate return. The emotional benefits of providing help to others disappears when others are instructed to do so or feel controlled because they should help or have no choice but to help.

The four steps to getting the help you need include:

  1. The helper needs to notice that you might need help. People don’t attend to everything happening around them – Inattentional blindness
  2. The helper needs to believe that you desire help. People are not mind readers and have a general fear of looking foolish – audience inhibition. People assume that if you want help, you will ask for it
  3. The helper needs to take responsibility for helping. If lots people could help they “why me?” – bystander effect
  4. The helper neds to be able to provide the help you need. Competing commitments can be an issue

Methods to ask people for help without making them feel controlled include:

  • Invoke a sense of in-group – group membership is an essential component of our identity
  • Support a positive identity – make them feel good about themselves
  • Provide an opportunity to see their own effectiveness

Also when asking for help, don’t use disclaimers, don’t make it transactional, don’t emphasis how much the other person will love helping, don’t minimise the request, don’t remind people that they owe you a favour and don’t talk about how much their help will benefit you.

Reciprocity works best when the acts of help are roughly equal and are temporally close.

To increase your helper’s sense of effectiveness:

  1. Be clear upfront about the nature of assistance you want and what its impact will be
  2. Follow up afterward – and let them know in advance that you will
  3. Allow people to choose how they help you if possible

Don’t apologise for needing help – and offer appreciation when someone helps you. Use the word “together”, highlight shared goals, find a common (out-group) enemy, talk about shared experiences not shared traits, provide positive identity reinforcement and say thank you the right way by praising the helper.

The book contains information that is important for those looking at reciprocity and referrer and referrals management. It will also be a valuable addition to techniques for achieving engagement and buy-in, assertiveness, leadership, motivation and creating a collaborative culture.

Interesting statistics and insights:

  • When asked, 68% of people willingly gave up their seats on a crowded train when asked (Milgram)
  • Compliance (the rate at which people will actually help) is under estimated on average by roughly 48% (Bohns) and is more pronounced in individualistic cultures such as in the United States and Western Europe.
  • Depression, as opposed to just sadness, is characterised by a sense of permanence – the (largely inaccurate) belief that how you feel right now is never going to change. Psychologists argue that guilt – a state often characterised by tension, remorse and anxiety – serves the function of helping to preserve and strengthen social bonds.
  • Studies show that people who belong to charity organisations or engage in volunteer work have higher levels of life satisfaction, physical health and self-esteem.
  • Asking for and obtaining commitment to a favour before revealing the request yielded an 84% co-operation rate, compared to only 57% for the non-favour version (Bohns and Flynn)
  • When people feel grateful, they are not only more likely to help their benefactor, they are more likely to help perfect strangers in need of assistance
  • People in negative moods (anxious, depressed or frustrated) are less likely to pay attention to others around them or notice others’ needs (inattentional blindness)
  • Being in position of relative power over others, as managers are with respect to their employees, has been shown to direct one’s attention away from the less powerful and towards one’s own goals
  • The norm of family privacy makes people reluctant to interfere in domestic matters
  • In the workplace, estimates suggest that as much as 75% to 90% of the help colleagues give one another is in response to direct appeals
  • The bystander effect is where people hold back from helping because there are too many potential helpers. Latane and Darley coined the term ”diffusion of responsibility”
  • Amanda Palmer’s “The art of asking” said to stop apologizing for needing help as apologies are distancing
  • There are two types of gratitude expression – other-praising (acknowledging the character or abilities of the giver) and self-benefit (how the receiver is better off). The first is most powerful (Algoe, Kurtz and Hilaire)
  • The best team-building experiences aren’t about getting-to-now you games but focused on building shared experiences and shared sentiments.
  • Studies show that something as simple as taking a moment to think about our values can result in tangible boosts to self-esteem
  • Being known as a helper was more motivating and led to more effort that simply “helping” in tasks (there is a good example shown where being asked “how important is it to you to be a voter” were more likely to vote than asked simply if they planned to vote)
  • The absence of thanks for previous help given saw future helping rates cut immediately in half (Gino and Grant)
  • Higgins in his book “Beyond pleasure and pain” argued that the desire to feel effective is what truly engages people and gives their lives meaning. People need to feel that they have made an impact
  • Many researchers argue that the reason identifiable victims consistently receive more assistance than anonymous ones is because potential helpers can more easily imagine the difference their efforts will make
  • She quotes Matt Lieberman from his book “Social”: “Love and belonging might seem like a convenience we can live without, but our biology is built to thirst for connection because it is linked to our most basic survival needs”.
  • Social psychologists want to explain behaviour less in terms of personality and more in terms of the context or situational forces at play.