The Science of Asking
I’m a complete sucker for being asked to do things. I sometimes actively avoid people because I know that if they ask me to do something I will be physically unable to say no. My cats know this. My children know this. Charities seem to know this too, because they’ve forced me into hiding. I must be on some kind of global watchlist somewhere as a celebrity philanthropist. But I’m not. I’m just a regular guy. Probably not much different from you.
Actually, I know I’m no special case because entire books have been written on helping people to learn how to say no. They’re on my reading list, I promise. I guess saying no isn’t an easy thing to do. Most of us want to be liked. And what easier way to achieve that than to simply fold along all those joints in our spine.
For some reason, though, when it comes to getting other people to do stuff, we assume they’re tougher than we are. We fail to realize that often all that’s needed is to ask plainly for what we want. We think things are trickier than they are and that people need to be fooled into doing things. But most people don’t want to be fooled into doing things. They just want to be asked.
So what’s the first lesson I teach in my persuasion courses: Learn to ask for what you want.
There is no technique in the psychological literature with more power to persuade than simply asking.
One of my most favorite psychological studies of all time is based on simply asking. It was conducted in the late 70s by Clark and Hatfield (1989) and it goes like this. Male and female volunteers randomly went up to people of the opposite sex around campus and, after saying they found the person attractive, asked one of three questions: ‘Would you go out with me tonight?’, ‘Would you come over to my apartment tonight?’, or ‘Would you go to bed with me tonight?’ Give yourself a second to think about the results you would predict. How often are women likely to comply with either of these three questions? How often are men likely to comply?
Men, as it turns out, were more willing to go to bed with a woman (75%) than to go dinner with her (only 50%), with going to their apartment falling in between (69%). Women, on the other hand, were completely unwilling to go bed with a random unknown man (0%), and were only slightly more willing to go to their apartment (6%). However, more than half of women were willing to go to dinner with a random male stranger (56%).
Whether you’re a woman or a man, the big lesson here is not that women don’t sleep with random men while men will sleep with most anybody. We knew this already. The real lesson is that asking someone on a date, someone you’ve never even met before, has about even odds of success. Given the mythological difficulties associated with finding a date, this result says mountains about the hidden power of asking.
Studies with the simple message of ‘just ask’ are bountiful. In another study by Santos (1974), a female student posing as a panhandler goes up to people on the street and asks for money. In the ‘just ask’ condition, the number of people who offer money is 22%, with an average gift of approximately 50 cents. If the ‘homeless’ student asks for a slightly odd amount of money like 17 cents (or 37 cents in another condition), the hit rate goes up to 36%, with an average gift of about 37 cents. The authors make the point that the interesting request (what they call the ‘pique’ technique) facilitates persuasion. But simply asking amounted to about a dime per person asked in profit. People who don’t ask don’t get money. People who ask in interesting ways get slightly more than those who asked, but not by much.
In another, now famous, study by Langer et al. (1978), a person wants to break in line at the copy machine and asks if he can. In one condition, he just asks ‘Excuse me, I have 5 pages, can I use the copy machine?’. Approximately 60% of people asked were happy to comply with the request. A few more people complied if he offered what is called ‘placebic information’, by asking ‘Can I use the copy machine because I need to make copies.’ Or, ‘Can I use the copy machine because I’m in a hurry.’ In these cases compliance was above 90%.
The message again: if you want something, your first port of call should be to ask for it.
Most of us underestimate the power of asking. A study by Flynn and Lake (2008) brings the point home. They asked people in the study to get five other people to fill out a short 5 to 10 minute questionnaire. They also asked the participants to predict how many other people they would have to ask to get five people to comply with their request. Most participants in the study overestimated the number of people they would have to ask. They predicted it would take twice as many as it actually took. In fact, to get five people to fill out the questionnaire, people had to ask about 10 people. That’s a hit rate of 50% — a lot like asking random people to go out to dinner with you.
Asking is a powerful thing. You can ask for specific things, like a hug, or you can ask for more general things, like information. According to a study by Annette Lareau, a priviledged middle-class upbringing often leads children to feel like they deserve things and so they ask for them. As a result, their lives tend to be better than children who fail to ask questions. A sense of entitlement that leads you to ask questions is self-reinforcing. It tends to get you what you want, so you learn to ask more often.
Perhaps more importantly, it sometimes gets you what you need. Malcolm Gladwell does an excellent job in ‘Outliers’ of describing the perils of airplane pilots who fail to ask questions of their superiors and instead crash into mountains. In some of my own studies I’ve found that students who fail to ask questions in classrooms are generally more worried about looking ignorant than they are about mastering the material. You can imagine the sad result of this catch-22.
The moral of this story: If you want more out of life, learn to ask for it.
One final thing. Sometimes people say ‘no’. Maybe they read one of those books I was talking about. When people say ‘no’, the very next thing you should do is ask ‘why’. And then they’ll tell you what you need to do to get them to say yes.
Flynn, Francis J., and Vanessa KB Lake. “If you need help, just ask: underestimating compliance with direct requests for help.” Journal of personality and social psychology 95.1 (2008): 128.
Langer, Ellen J., Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz. “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of” placebic” information in interpersonal interaction.” Journal of personality and social psychology 36.6 (1978): 635.
Lareau, Annette. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. University of California Pr, 2011.
Santos, Michael D., Craig Leve, and Anthony R. Pratkanis. “Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Seventeen Cents? Mindful Persuasion and the Pique Technique1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 24.9 (1994): 755–764.