Editor's Choice

Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You

June 29, 2018


Heidi Grant's new book will show you how to be better able to ask for the help you need, and improve the lives of others—perhaps the world—in the process.

Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You by Heidi Grant, Harvard Business Review Press, 208 pages, Hardcover, June 2018, ISBN 9781633692350

We all need help. Perhaps the only thing more painful than admitting that is actually asking for it.

The irony is that we all love the feeling we get when we know we’ve been of help to others. This is an emotionally silly state of affairs, isn’t it—especially in a world that clearly needs more people helping one another?

Heidi Grant’s new book, Reinforcements, attempts to recalibrate this convolution. Her primary mission in the book is making you comfortable with the idea of asking for help, and making you better at it. The first step in doing so is addressing why asking makes us feel so bad, and for that she turns first to Stanley Milgram.

Milgram is most famous for his controversial obedience study, but it is his study on asking for help that Grant turns to here. “One day, after listening to his elderly mother complain that no one on the subway had offered to give her their seat,” Grant tells us, “Milgram wondered what would happen if one were just to ask a subway rider for their seat?” He sent his graduate students out in the real world to find out.


The good news: 68 percent of people willingly gave up their seats upon request. The bad news: conducting the survey was—to this day—among the worst, most traumatic experiences his students had had in their lifetimes.


Students felt literally sick to their stomach asking, and one recalled turning so white that the seated person jumped to their aid and assisted them to the now vacated spot. Skeptical of his students’ accounts, Milgram went out to conduct the experiment for himself. Upon taking the seat he asked for, he finally understood: “My head sank between my knees, and I could feel my face blanching. I was not role-playing. I actually felt as if I were going to perish.”

That discomfort occurs because our brain registers social pain in as real a way as it does physical pain, and the threat of rejection, the uncertainty of the outcome, and how asking for help might affect our status and our sense of autonomy can cause us significant social pain. We can counteract that by realizing that not only are people usually more than willing, even enthusiastic, to help, asking someone to provide it may even make their day. In fact:


We could make the argument that not asking for help is a selfish thing, in that it robs other people of one of life’s most reliable boosts to well-being.


Grant explains how we are hardwired to want to help, and that we are motivated by a desire to have an impact on the world around us—even at the expense of our own happiness. “People routinely choose to live lives of suffering and self-sacrifice,” she notes, “because it’s the impact of their choices that matter most.” It is, therefore, important to increase your benefactor’s sense of their own effectuality as much as possible. You can do that by being clear about exactly what you need, by allowing another to choose how they provide their support, and by following up with them to let them know that they had an impact. If you can do that, it can increase both their sense of impact and their happiness. This is obviously true of our relationships at work, as well:


As a colleague and as a manager of people, helping people see the impact of their work—their help—is one of the most important motivators you can wield.


But it isn’t the only motivator. As a social psychologist, Grant is less interested in the personalities of those who are most likely to give help than in “the context and situational forces at play.” For instance, people are more likely to help those in an in-group, and . Both of these have predictable potential downsides. Maintaining a positive view of ourselves can lead to denial, and in-group reinforcement can lead to discrimination of those we perceive to be in an out-group:


For example, one study showed that employers were 50 percent more likely to invite “Kristen Jones” for an interview after reading her résumé than “Latoya Jone,” even when the two résumés were identical, because of the racial groups that employers assumed each candidate belonged to.


It requires “significant cognitive effort” to mitigate your tendency for out-group bias, but group membership can also be “a means to bridging the gaps that divide us.” Emphasizing shared goals, feelings, or experiences, or highlighting a common competitor or other out-group you have in common, can help create an in-group. This is why, she explains, the best team-building exercises focus on building shared experiences and sentiments rather than "getting-to-know-you" games. As corny as it sounds, even simply using the word “together” when speaking signals that we belong to a common group. And when we do, we’re more likely to support one another. Similarly, expressing gratitude for the help you’ve received reinforces your helper’s innate desire for a positive self-identity, and also helps “strengthen our relationships with those upon whom we rely and make them more likely to support us in the future.”

Another motivator is that it simply feels terrible to turn down a request for help. It feels even worse to do so repeatedly, which, contrary to what we might expect, makes people who have rejected a request of ours in the past more likely to help the second time we ask. That said, someone who has done us a favor in the past is also more likely to help a second time. In fact, to avoid the cognitive dissonance that would result from the inconsistency or contradiction of not helping again, they will usually “help in increasingly effortful and inconvenient ways after granting an initial request.” There are, of course, ways to manipulate these tendencies, and there are less-than-savory sales tactics that do just that. But what it shows is that people are for more likely, and willing, to help than we assume, and that tendency can also be used to reinforce positive, prosocial behavior.

Grant reminds us of Mr. Rogers famous quote: “When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping … if you look for the helpers, you’ll know there is hope.’” She writes that it is:


A beautiful sentiment that captures a beautiful truth—human beings are, much more than it often seems, wired to want to help and support one another. And their lives are immeasurably enriched by doing so.


Allowing others to help you by knowing how and being willing to ask for it may just aid them as much as you, and makes the world around you a better, more helpful, more joyous place in the process. “It brings out the best—and the best feelings—in all of us,” writes Heidi Grant. Her Reinforcements will help you do just that.

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