Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Evidence that asking directly gets better results

In reality, as [Cornell psychologist Vanessa] Bohns recounts in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, the strangers were almost twice as likely to agree to the request than the students expected. They guessed, for example, that they'd have to ask ten people if they could borrow a cell phone before someone would let them; in reality, on average, the sixth person said yes. They also guessed that they'd have to ask about ten people before one would agree to fill out a questionnaire; in practice, it only took four asks on average to get a yes. ...

People don't consider the situation from the other person's point of view, in other words. When you're trying to get someone to do something for you, you likely pay a lot of attention to what it will cost the person to say yes. But most people also fail to acknowledge the potential cost of saying no. "No one wants to reject others, particularly not face-to-face," Bohns and Flynn write. ...

That said, there are some ways to phrase your request that are more likely to work than others. No surprise, a direct question works better than tiptoeing around the subject. In that same 2008 study with the Columbia undergrads, Bohns and Flynn asked the students to try to get passersby to fill out a questionnaire, either indirectly (by handing them a flyer) or directly (by simply asking). The strangers were much more likely to fill out the questionnaire when asked directly than when handed the flyer. The real-life lesson, then, is that you can hint around at what you want all you like, but you'd be much better served if you just asked plainly.

Other research in this area has shown that people are more likely to comply with a request if you give them a reason, even if that reason is kind of dumb. And if you try all these things and still don't get what you want, don't give up — try again. Bohns' research has shown that people are more likely to say yes after they've said no once, perhaps because they feel guilty over the initial refusal.

But the words you use when you ask matter, too. In another experiment in that 2008 study, some students were told to frame their question straightforwardly: "Would you fill out a questionnaire?" Others were told to first ask, "Can you do me a favor?" and then ask that same question. In the straightforward condition, 57 percent of the passersby complied; compare that to 84 percent of those in the favor condition. Your mom was right: People are happier to do what you want them to if you ask nicely. But first, you have to ask.
--Melissa Dahl, New York, on the power of asking