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World Economic Forum: Here’s the Psychology Behind Asking for Help

From World Economic Forum: By: Ania Jaroszewicz, George Loewenstein, Roland Bénabou
The economic consequences of receiving essential help from a friend, relative, or colleague can be momentous. But there are countless situations in which people don’t ask for help or, conversely, in which people with the ability to help don’t offer it. This column examines the factors that determine the offering, asking, and granting of help. Asking entails the risk of rejection, which can be painful, generating a trap wherein those in need hope – but don’t ask – for an offer, while willing helpers wait for a request, resulting in significant inefficiencies.
Imagine a not unusual COVID scenario. A friend who lives alone catches COVID, and you suspect she would benefit from some assistance – perhaps a grocery or drugstore delivery. You are very busy and would prefer not to help, but suspect she might know that you know she would benefit from it. If you knew that she knew that you were aware of her need, or if she explicitly asked for help (in which case you would clearly know she needed it), you would certainly help. However, she fails to ask because she is afraid to. If she asked and you turned her down, she would be devastated by the rejection. Although asking for help might seem like a trivial matter, as suggested by the common exhortation “It can’t hurt to ask”, the example illustrates that asking for help and providing it often involve complex calculations. In particular, it very much can hurt to ask, because asking exposes one to the possibility of a painful rejection.
The economic consequences of receiving needed help – or not – from a friend, relative, colleague, professor, or supervisor, can be momentous. A person struggling financially who does not get a loan from a relative may instead take out a costly payday loan. A student who does not get help from his classmates or adviser may fail an exam, jeopardising his educational future. In thinking about how such helping interactions may (fail to) occur, we look to two sources: the demand side (the decisions of people in need to either ask for help or not), and the supply side
(the decisions of potential helpers to either offer help proactively or not, and to accede to a request or not). Many of us can think of situations in which we were in need but did not ask for help, or conversely when we had an opportunity to offer help but chose not to.

Factors that determine asking and giving decisions

Why don’t people in need ask for help? Moreover, if potential helpers would give if asked (which they often do), why don’t they offer proactively? Social scientists have proposed a number of explanations for asking and giving behaviours. On the asking side, people may not ask because they fear revealing that they are needy or incompetent (Tessler and Schwartz 1972), or because they don’t want to be indebted to others (Greenberg and Shapiro 1971). On the giving side, the main question has been not why people don’t want to give (since giving is costly), but rather why many do give. Answers proposed include altruism (of different types, see e.g. Ottoni-Wilhelm et al. 2017), social and self-image motives (Bénabou and Tirole 2006), and reluctance to violate expectations of helping (Dana et al. 2007, DellaVigna et al. 2012).
As our opening example illustrates, both offering and asking decisions can hinge on uncertainties that are inherent in many interactions. A person in need may wonder, “How much does this potential helper care about me and our relationship? Why haven’t they offered? If I ask them, will they say yes?” At the same time, the potential helper may be wondering, “Does this person actually need my help? Do they know that I know that they need help? Are they going to ask me? Will I look selfish if I don’t offer?”
Read more at World Economic Forum.