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If you ask a stranger, “May I use your cell phone?” The answer most likely will be yes.
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter

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“People tend not to recognize how difficult it is to say no to someone,” says Vanessa Bohns. “When someone is standing in front of you, asking you for something, it is very awkward to refuse.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Even when it’s unethical, “You can feel uncomfortable about what you’re being asked to do but still wind up going along with it because it’s even more uncomfortable to say no.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Egocentrism explains why one feels awkward refusing a request, but when the person becomes the one doing the asking, that awkward feeling is forgotten.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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The research may be relevant to high-pressure situations, such as fraternity hazing where pledgees feel it’s impossible to refuse a request no matter how outrageous.
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter

How Much Influence Do We Have Over Others?

by Jackie Swift

You have more influence over others than you think you do. Consider a situation where you’ve lost your cell phone at the mall, and you need to make a phone call. Do you think a random stranger will let you use her cell phone? If you’re like most people, you expect the stranger to say no to your request, yet in actuality, the odds are that she will allow you to use her phone. All you have to do is ask.

“People tend not to recognize how difficult it is to say no to someone,” says Vanessa K. Bohns, Organizational Behavior. “When someone is standing in front of you, asking you for something, it is very awkward to refuse. You feel uncomfortable. You feel that you’re insinuating something about the person who is asking if you say no. So we say yes, even when we don’t want to.”

Persuading Others

Bohns studies social influence, specifically how much more likely people are to do things than we think they are. Together with Frank Flynn at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she has conducted a series of studies testing participants’ intuitions about whether or not they can persuade other people. Participants are told they must go to a designated public place and make a specific request of random strangers. The studies focused on different requests; for instance, in one study, participants had to ask to use a cell phone. Before carrying out their task, the participants had to estimate how likely people were to agree to the request.

In the case of the cell phone request, participants predicted they’d have to approach 10.1 people in order to get three strangers to allow them to use their phones. In actuality, they had to ask an average of 6.2 people—one out of every two people they approached agreed to let them use their phone. “Across the board we find people think others are more likely to say no than they actually are,” says Bohns.

This may mean that if you’re involved in a conflict with someone, the best way to heal the rift may be to ask that person for help. “The target of the request is likely to comply,” Bohns says.…“Email doesn’t have the same properties as a face-to-face request."

The researchers even found this effect when the request was unethical. In one study, participants were given a mockup of a library book and instructed to ask library patrons to vandalize it. The participants explained to the people who they approached that they were playing a prank on a friend. In order to make sure their friend did not recognize their handwriting, they wanted the library patron to write the word “pickle” in the library book for them.

The study participants estimated beforehand that a majority of people would refuse to vandalize the book. They were wrong. “Over 60 percent of the people asked to vandalize actually agreed to do it,” says Bohns. “They would make comments like, ‘I don’t want to get in trouble’ or ‘This seems wrong,’ but they would still do it. You can feel uncomfortable about what you’re being asked to do but still wind up going along with it because it’s even more uncomfortable to say no.” Even more significant, Bohns explains, were the findings that we may not recognize the extent to which our words and actions affect others’ ethical behavior and decisions.

Why Do We Agree to Do Things We Don’t Want to Do?

There are various theories about why we agree to things we don’t want to do. One explanation is that we are group-oriented, says Bohns. “It’s ingrained in us not to sever relationships. There’s also the theory of facework, where everyone is saving face for each other. We don’t want to call someone out. If someone is asking us to do something, then the implication is that they feel it’s okay to ask this; and if we say no, we’re suggesting there’s something wrong with what they’re asking.”

Since we’ve all experienced this reluctance to refuse a request, why do we underestimate our own power when it comes to making a request of someone else? “This is one of the big questions,” says Bohns. “Why, when we’re in one perspective, can we not remember what it’s like to be in the other perspective? There’s something called egocentrism, which is the idea that when we’re not in a particular emotional or physiological state, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be in that state. So you feel awkward saying no to a request, but when you’re the one doing the asking, you’ve forgotten that awkward feeling.” Now you’re uncomfortable doing the asking.

Using the Research

There are many applications of these findings, Bohns says. In the workplace, for instance, bosses often ask their subordinates to do something outside their usual job parameters—stay late or work on the weekend. The boss believes that if the request is too onerous, the employee will say no. “We think that if we cross the line and ask too much, someone will tell us,” says Bohns. “But in fact, it’s a lot harder than we realize for others to tell us we’ve gone too far.” The study results may also be relevant to high-pressure situations such as the hazing of fraternity pledgees, who find it impossible to refuse a request no matter how outrageous.

You may think that agreeing to a request because you fear the social awkwardness of refusing results in resentment toward the asker. On the contrary, people justify their actions by concluding that they like the person who made the request, Bohns says. “The thinking is if I granted this person’s request, I must like him. So rather than feeling resentment, the person who complies with a request ends up feeling good about the asker.” This may mean that if you’re involved in a conflict with someone, the best way to heal the rift may be to ask that person for help. “The target of the request is likely to comply,” Bohns says. “The justification process will follow, and feelings of positivity will start to restore the relationship.”

Just make sure you make your request for help face-to face. When you use email to make your request, you get the opposite effect. People are more likely to refuse an email request than we think they are. “Email doesn’t have the same properties as a face-to-face request. It doesn’t have the immediacy, the implicit trust that comes from looking someone in the eye,” says Bohns. “This is all about face-to-face interaction happening right in this moment.”