A Brief Guide to Convincing Total Strangers to Do Your Bidding

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc

The worst has happened: Your phone has died. This would typically be only a minor nuisance, but, as it happens, today you need to make just one tiny but necessary phone call while you are out and about. Your options, it seems, are these: Either you don’t make the call, or you weird out a stranger by asking to borrow their phone. Most likely, you will go for the former, because the latter might actually kill you. And, anyway, who would ever agree to let you use their phone?

More people than you think, probably, argues Cornell University organizational psychologist Vanessa K. Bohns. For the past decade, Bohns and her colleagues have made their study volunteers ask a total of 14,000 total strangers for favors, ranging from the small (borrowing a cell phone) to the large (filling out, on the spot, a ten-page questionnaire) to the weird and vaguely unethical (writing the word pickle, in pen, in a library book). The overarching message of this body of work, as Bohns writes in a recent paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science, is that people tend to underestimate how willing total strangers will be to comply to a request. The random people who surround you on, say, your commute into work, or on a jog in the park, are much likelier than you expect to agree if you ask them for a favor.

Here’s a brief overview of the research on asking random strangers for annoying favors:

More people will say yes to a request than you think. For example, in an experimental version of the above dead-smartphone horror, Bohns and her fellow experimenters asked their study volunteers to approach strangers and ask if they could borrow their phone. Before they embarked upon this exceedingly awkward mission, however, the study participants gave a guess to Bohns as to how many people they’d have to ask before someone said yes.

On average, they estimated that they’d need to ask ten people to get one to say yes; in reality, they got a “yes” after asking six people. True, asking six strangers for a favor is still not the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but Bohns points out another way to interpret this data. “In other words, approximately one out of every two people they approached agreed to loan our participants their phones; participants had overestimated the number of people they would need to ask by more than 60 percent,” she writes.

This is true even when the request is a giant pain. In one experiment, study volunteers were told to ask strangers to fill out a questionnaire that was either one page or ten pages; despite the fact that the latter is a much bigger ask, there was no discernable difference in the strangers’ likelihood of saying yes to either request.

It remains true even when the request is super weird. Consider, for example, the library-book experiment, which is surely the oddest one recounted here:

[P]articipants asked strangers to vandalize a purported library book by writing the work “pickle” in pen on one of the pages. A number of individuals approached by our participants voiced their discomfort, expressing concern with getting into trouble, referring to the request as “vandalism,” and conveying a general reluctance to participate.

The study volunteers expected that just over a quarter of the people they asked would agree to the request — but in reality, more than 64 percent agreed. To write the word pickle. In pen. In a library book.

If they say no ask again. People apparently so dislike saying “no” to a request that they don’t tend to do it twice. In one experiment, many of the people who at first refused a stranger’s request to fill out a questionnaire went on to agree to mail a letter for that same stranger — a much more annoying request. “In contrast to requesters’ expectations, targets found it just as uncomfortable — seemingly more so — to refuse someone a second time,” Bohns writes.

I wish I could tell you that this meant that the world is a kinder and more helpful place than we assume it to be. I can’t. Instead, what the results of these experiments seem to suggest is the fierce potency of social norms, and how highly motivated most people are to avoid any awkwardness that might ensue by stepping outside of those boundaries. “In essence, by refusing a request, one risks offending one’s interaction partner — a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties,” Bohns writes. “As a result, many people agree to things — even things they would prefer not to do — simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’” The power of awkwardness is a mighty thing. Use it well.

How to Convince Strangers to Do Your Bidding