Just ask

(featured image credit: cookie_studio via Freepik)

How can we get other people to do something for us? Perhaps it’s easier than we imagine.

In Blake Edwards’ 1975 movie The Return of the Pink Panther, Peter Sellers (playing Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté) arrives at a hotel. After a struggle with a revolving door, he successfully ends up in the lobby. A smartly dressed man approaches him, asking “Can I take your coat?” Clouseau obliges, and the man follows up with requests for Clouseau’s gloves and hat, then promptly leaves the hotel, puts on the hat and then drives off in an open top car with a final wave to the perplexed policeman.

The compliant kind

The scene is a fine illustration of the comic talents of both the actor and the director. But is it also a realistic example of how easy it is to steal people’s accessories? We may think that what befalls the hapless (and fictional) policeman could not possibly happen to us, sharp cookies as we are.

Now just your keys and we’re done. (photo: via YouTube)

And still. In one of his TV shows, the British illusionist and mentalist Derren Brown demonstrated how easy it is to make people hand over not their coat, gloves and hat, but their watch, wallet, phone and house keys. He says, in the preceding clip, that it worked with about two thirds of the people he approached in the seaside town of Blackpool. Of course, Mr Brown is not just a random dude, but an expert in observing and influencing human behaviour.

Yet, unlike the kind of sleight of hand performed by magicians (and pickpockets) when they separate people from their belongings without their noticing it, and which take hundreds of hours of practice, what he does here is, in principle, entirely feasible for you and me. He is barely touching the other person, and certainly not removing the items himself. The subject is somehow persuaded, almost exclusively by the words he says. “Can I just grab your watch?” makes the other guy unquestioningly release the strap of his timepiece.

Are people inherently inclined to accede to our requests, even if they are complete strangers? Research by psychologists Vanessa Bohns and Frank Flynn suggests that this is the case more than we expect.

In an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, Bohns relates the experience that gave rise to the experiment. As a graduate student at Columbia university, she had to approach random people during the rush hour in Penn Station (the busiest station of the Western Hemisphere). Some people were hurrying to catch a train, others were keeping themselves occupied until theirs was announced. Nobody was waiting for someone to interrupt what they were doing to ask if they wanted to complete a questionnaire. Yet, that was what she was supposed to do, and it felt terribly awkward. Every time she expected people to reject her, or to be angry and say something mean.

But after she had distributed all her survey forms and the completed ones were being returned, what surprised her and her supervisor at the time, Frank Flynn, was how many people had actually done so. Throughout the experience she had felt others had had great influence over her, but it was the other way round: she had almost effortlessly persuaded the others.

We have more influence than we realize…

Bohns and Flynn ran an experiment to explore this phenomenon. Participants first had to estimate how many people they would need to approach to obtain five completed surveys (which would take 5-10 minutes), before actually going out and ask strangers to fill in the questionnaire. On average, the study participants expected they would need to approach twenty people, but in reality, ten were enough. A follow-up experiment in which participants had to approach a stranger and either ask to borrow their mobile phone to make a brief call, or to be accompanied to the campus gym (hard to find for people unfamiliar with the location) produced similar results. While they predicted they’d need to ask on average 10.1 strangers to find three prepared to lend them their cell phone, in practice they only had to ask 6.2 people; similarly, instead of the 7.2 people they expected to have to ask to find one to accompany them to the gym, in reality just 2.3 people were needed on average.

Research set in a university library, conducted more than 40 years ago by psychologist Ellen Langer and colleagues, adds further insight. People who were about to use a photocopier were approached by an experimenter asking whether they could go first. The request was formulated in one of three ways: (a) no explanation (“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the machine?”), (b) with a meaningless explanation (“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the machine, because I have to make copies?”), and (c) with a meaningful explanation (“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the machine, because I am in a rush?”).

With the simple no-explanation request, 60% of the individuals approached let the experimenter go first. That is a pretty good result – but providing the meaningful reason from condition (c) pushed that up to 94%. The remarkable finding was that people who were told the meaningless reason from condition (b) were equally likely (93%) to concede to the request. The experiment was repeated with 20 copies (instead of 5), and then the result was different: 42% let the experimenter go first in the meaningful condition, and there was no difference between the situations in which a meaningless explanation and no explanation were given (24%).

This suggests that for small requests that demand little effort, people have a high propensity to respond favourably, even more so if some form of reason is provided, irrespective of whether it makes much sense. Even for larger requests, a sizeable minority will react positively when it is accompanied by a meaningful reason.

even if our intent is not so pure

There is a dark side to this, too. Another paper by Vanessa Bohns and colleagues looked into how much influence people have over others to make them commit unethical acts. In the first condition, the participants asked strangers to tell a “white lie”: “Will you sign this? I’m supposed to tell students about a new course and get them to sign this form stating that they’ve heard about the course, but I really don’t want to do it.” In the second condition, strangers were asked to perform a small act of vandalism: “Hi, I’m trying to play a prank on someone, but they know my handwriting. Will you just quickly write the word ‘pickle’ on this page of this library book?”

The study participants predicted they would need to ask 8.5 people to find three willing to confirm they had been told about the new course. The average they actually needed was only 4.4. It was the same for the library books: the expectation was 10.7, but in reality, they found 3 people willing to write the word ‘pickle’ after approaching just 4.7 on average.

One common feature in these studies is that the requests were made in person. Does it work remotely too? A paper by psychologist Mahdi Roghdanizad and his former PhD supervisor Vanessa Bohn found that, for direct requests over email, requesters overestimate the likelihood of compliance. In a mixed face-to-face/email setting, participants had to ask strangers to complete a 44-question personality inventory questionnaire. On average, participants in the face-to-face condition predicted that just over half (50.8%) the targets would comply, while in reality 71.5% did; however, in the email condition, the anticipation was that 55.3% of the people contacted would complete the questionnaire, but barely 2.1% actually did. A follow-up study suggests that a key reason for the discrepancy is the failure of the requesters to appreciate how much trust is conveyed in face-to-face interactions (activating the targets’ empathy), and how much this trust is lost when the contact is by email.

We seem to feel more awkward about asking others (especially strangers) for a favour than we should. A simple request is much more likely to be met with a positive response than we assume – our fellow humans are a more accommodating lot than we think. We should not be afraid to just ask (but we should resist the temptation to cover up our embarrassment by asking in writing).

About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Emotions, Ethics, Psychology, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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