The Science Behind Why You Should Ask For Help

11:41 minutes

two women in an office. one on the left is sitting down and smiling at a laptop, and the other woman is standing to her left leaning down gesturing at the laptop
Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes asking for help—even for the smallest of favors—can feel awkward, or like you’re inconveniencing someone else. But the odds are, you’re probably wrong. Studies show that people are much more willing to lend a helping hand than you would think, and both parties usually end up happier.

Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. Xuan Zhao, a psychologist at Stanford University, about the psychology behind asking for help.

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Segment Guests

Xuan Zhao

Dr. Xuan Zhao is a psychologist at Stanford University in Mountain View, California.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

SHAHLA FARZAN: And I’m Shahla Farzan. OK, John, I have a personal question for you. Do you ever have trouble asking for help?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, you know, I used to be really bad at this. I always figured, I don’t want to feel like a burden to anyone.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Yeah, actually, a lot of people feel this way. Asking a stranger or even sometimes a friend for help can be really uncomfortable and awkward, even if it’s just a small thing. Like, the other day, I had to ask a friend to water my plants for me when I was out of town. Small thing. And it was almost physically uncomfortable for me. I had to really psych myself up.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Totally. And there’s this feeling that you’re inconveniencing them, and if they say yes, it’s only out of obligation. And nobody wants to make people feel that way.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Mm-hmm. Well, I have some news that might make both of us feel a little bit better about this. Research shows that if you just ask for help, people are much more willing to lend a hand than maybe you would think. And usually, you both walk away feeling happier. Here to tell us about the science behind asking for help is my guest Dr. Xuan Zhao, psychologist at Stanford University, based in Mountain View, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

XUAN ZHAO: Thank you for having me.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Your research focuses on social interactions. Can you tell us why it’s important to study them?

XUAN ZHAO: We as humans are social animals. Social interaction is so important to our happiness and well-being, our personal life, and also our work life. No great things are achieved alone. That’s why I study social interaction about how we understand each other, misunderstand each other, connect with each other, and oftentimes, do not connect with each other.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Yeah, so part of your work actually focuses on how people ask for help, which is a specific topic. And I’m curious– what inspired you to look into that?

XUAN ZHAO: There are a couple of reasons. One is, I study social interactions. So I was conducting a research project in Garfield Park in Chicago when I was a postdoctoral scholar with Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago. So at that time, we were collecting some data about compliment giving. We recruited participants in the park.

We set up our desk next to a beautiful scenic spot. And we noticed that lots of visitors, they really struggled to get their picture taken in front of the beautiful scene because they were trying to pose for a selfie, and the view is very expensive. It’s too beautiful to just be captured in a selfie. So at that time, we just enjoyed watching these people fumble and try to figure out how they can get themselves a nice picture.

And then it occurred to me that, actually, why don’t these people ask those people around them for help? We were also looking at the literature for reasons on why people may struggle to ask for help. We noticed researchers have documented lots of reasons, like we’re concerned that we might look inferior or incompetent to another person. It feels really vulnerable. We also underestimate how willing other people are to say yes.

But we thought that it’s also because, oftentimes, we do not want to impose on other people, like you just said. And actually, when another person approaches you for help, you are actually quite happy to help and make a positive difference in another person’s life. It’s the kind of assumptions we hold in our head that can stop us from connecting with each other and also living in a kinder world. So we thought there must be a systematic misunderstanding about other people’s reactions. And that’s how we started this line of work.

SHAHLA FARZAN: I love this image of you out in the park watching people struggling to take selfies and not asking for help because I have been there before so many times, where you’d almost rather take a blurry photo or a photo where half of the people’s heads are cut off than dare to ask a stranger to help you. To figure this out, learn a little bit more about this, you did a series of social experiments. And one of them involved Polaroids in a park. Can you walk me through that one?

XUAN ZHAO: Totally. So after we realized that people really struggled to get their picture, we thought this would be a perfect place to study help seeking. So what we did is we had our experiment table next to the scenic spot, and we had a nice Polaroid there, and also a sign says, “free photo.” So people, naturally, they were very intrigued. And they decided to ask us for the free photo.

And we told them that you can get your photo. There’s just one catch. That is, you need to ask another person to help you take this photo. And people agreed. Then, right before they received the Polaroid, we actually asked them to fill out a really short survey. We sit them down, ask them to predict, if they approach another person in the park, how would that person respond to their request?

So after that short survey– takes about maybe two, three minutes– they were given the Polaroid. They find some stranger in front of the scenic spot and summon up all the courage and ask that person if that person can take a photo for them. Usually, the person who received this request is– they beam with a smile. You can tell that they really want to help.

There were a few times when someone is in a rush. They had to leave and said no. But usually, that person is so happy to help, and the person who is asking for help felt so relieved. We see this dynamics in plain sight every time.

And then they got the photo– it’s usually a photo that develops pretty quickly, a Polaroid photo– and then asked the person who just helped the other person to take a photo– they are ready to leave. What they don’t know is that our experimenter has been watching this interaction from a distance. And the experimenter actually shows up, almost ambushed the person who helped to take a photo, and said that we actually are running a research study in the park about people’s social experience in the park. We have a really short survey. We just saw that you had an interaction with another visitor. Could we ask you to fill out this one-minute survey?

Usually, they would say yes, and then at that point, we ask the questions that we ask the requesters to predict. So those questions are like, how willing are you to help? How are you feeling right now– how happy you feel, how satisfied you feel. Basically, we compare the requesters’ predictions before the interaction with the helpers’ experience immediately after the interaction.

SHAHLA FARZAN: I’m picturing either you or one of your research assistants popping out from behind a tree or a bush, saying, this is for science. Will you take our survey?

XUAN ZHAO: It’s not that dramatic, actually, because there are a lot of people in the park. They can’t tell someone’s watching them.

SHAHLA FARZAN: So what was your biggest takeaway from that experiment, then?

XUAN ZHAO: So in addition to these studies in the park, we also had other experiments where we either asked people to recall recent life experiences or imagine all kinds of scenarios where they either needed to ask another person for help or another person approached them to ask for help. And we also had lab experiments where participants had to ask another participant for help.

So these studies after study after study– one consistent takeaway was that the help seekers, the people who need help, they tend to underestimate how willing the helpers would be to help them. They also underestimate how happy the helpers felt afterwards. And these help seekers overestimated by quite a bit how inconvenienced the helpers would feel afterwards. So they had some very different ideas about the experience of helping compared to the actual experiences of the helpers. That’s one big takeaway.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Yeah, so it sounds like asking for help maybe isn’t as big of a burden as we think, and those interactions can actually be a really important way to connect with other people. I mean, in your mind, what do you think the benefits are of connecting with strangers in this way?

XUAN ZHAO: So there has been a lot of research on the benefits of connecting with strangers. Usually, we underestimate how enjoyable those experiences are. Humans are social animals. We spent millions of years evolving our capacity to connect with another person. And oftentimes, when we are surrounded by other people, we often routinely ignore them.

So there’s the kind of research studying why we routinely ignore other people and opportunities to connect and what kind of enjoyment we might be missing from that kind of decision. So research suggesting that when you talk to a stranger, it’s actually more enjoyable than you might expect, less awkward, and oftentimes, it’s actually more informational than you may expect.

SHAHLA FARZAN: I struggle to ask for help all the time. This is a big thing for me. But your research helps me feel like I’m not the only one. And I wonder, how have people reacted to this study so far?

XUAN ZHAO: Many people resonate with the idea of struggling to ask for help. And we can all see how it’s really beneficial and important, especially during our times. And also, we also know that no good things are achieved alone, so it’s really important to ask for help. It’s good for your social life. It’s good for your well-being. It’s good for work. So that’s why I think we are getting lots of interests. Yeah, just trying to get this work out there and help people rethink about the assumptions they have in their head and whether that might hinder them to connect with other people and also live in a kinder world.

And also, for the next step, I would love to keep pushing the idea of perhaps some kind of culture change because, I mean, help seeking is difficult, also, because you don’t know if you are allowed to do so if you are in a place, maybe an organization, a family, where everyone’s expected to be so-called self-sufficient. Then you might struggle to ask for help because you think that’s not what’s expected in this space, and you might not have a safe space to ask for help. So that is something else I hope to keep pushing about the idea that we are not just doing self care. We are not– you should not just bottle up your problems and issues and struggles.

And oftentimes, we are in this together. And if you can create this kind of space, the environment where people feel that they can trust each other and be vulnerable to each other, then that will actually benefit everyone’s well-being. And that also allows people to be vulnerable and ask for help. So that’s the kind of conversations I’m having right now.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Great reminders for all of us. Xuan, thanks so much for joining me today.

XUAN ZHAO: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking with you. This is so fun.

SHAHLA FARZAN: Dr. Xuan Zhao is a psychologist at Stanford University, based in Mountain View, California.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Shahla Farzan

Shahla Farzan is a science journalist, PhD ecologist, and editor with American Public Media, where she helps produce science podcasts for kids. She loves showcasing the many weird and wonderful aspects of science—and encouraging young, curious thinkers to question and explore the world around them.

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