The reason it’s so hard to ask for help

Everyone needs a helping hand
Everyone needs a helping hand
Image: Reuters//Alessandro Bianchi
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If you’ve ever heard an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, you know that even ostensibly solo triumphs are the product of many people behind the scenes. Nothing of consequence is accomplished by anyone on their own—everyone needs help.

Given how we all depend on others, why, then, is it so hard to ask for help?

The answer, social psychologist Heidi Grant argues, lies in a fear of rejection that’s deep-rooted in evolutionary psychology.

In her forthcoming book, Reinforcements, Grant writes that asking for assistance is so distasteful that it can make people feel physically ill. Psychologist Stanley Milgram—famed for his experiments on obedience and authority—explored this phenomenon by instructing his graduate students to ask for seats on the subway. They reported back feeling traumatized by the experience. “I was afraid I was going to throw up,” one said years later in the New York Times.

According to Grant’s book, when a skeptical Milgram decided to try himself, and accepted a seat, “my head sank between my knees and I could feel my face blanching,” he wrote. “I was not role playing. I actually felt as if I was going to perish.”

That response, Grant argues, is based on social behavior hardwired into our brains from millennia of evolution. Like other primates, humans are inherently social animals, evolved to need the support of their family and tribe to survive. To ensure we would always be welcome in our communities, we developed psychological responses, akin to pain, that signal when we risk expulsion from the band. That social pain can be triggered by a variety of threats to our social standing, including the fear of losing status, the fear of being treated unfairly, the fear of uncertainty, and the fear of rejection.

When we are belittled or shunned, or our affections are rejected, it creates deep distress, a signal that we need to modify our behavior to get back within the community’s good graces.

Asking for help, Grant writes, exposes us to numerous possible social threats, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It can feel like a tacit admission of weakness, which lowers our status, and can be an invitation for scorn. It creates uncertainty, and invites the possibility of rejection. “No wonder, then, that we avoid asking for help like the plague,” she writes. “The plague might seem less dangerous in comparison.”

The good news, of course, is that it’s very rare for any of these negative outcomes to actually happen when we ask for help. In a meta-analysis of experiments, psychologist Vanessa Bohns examined 14,000 instances of study participants asking strangers for help, and found people were almost twice as likely to get help than they believed they would.

In other words, it can be much easier to get help than to ask for it.