What do you do when you cannot figure out how to finish a tricky task at work? Or you are lost on back roads? Or you are trying a new do-it-yourself project in your house and just cannot seem to make it look like the photograph that inspired you on Pinterest? In life when you are stuck, there are many solutions. For example, you could invest more time and effort by brainstorming alternative approaches, using trial and error or looking up tricks of the trade online.
But one thing most people know to avoid for sure: asking for advice. It is inconsiderate. We do not want to bother others. After all, other folks have their own problems to solve. Also, the person we ask may not have the answer we need anyway. These reasons may or may not be true. But we are pretty confident that people will think less of us. Thus, good reasons or no, we do not ask for help.
Yet our recent research suggests that the instinct to avoid seeking advice is wrong. Though extremely common, fears about appearing incompetent by asking for help or information are sorely misplaced. Here is why: when you ask for advice, people do not think less of you; they think you are smarter. They reason, “I'm brilliant (of course), so this guy's smart for asking for my advice.” And by asking someone to share his or her wisdom, a person strokes the adviser's ego and can gain valuable insights. Indeed, seeking guidance from others encourages information exchange and meaningful connection between us and our friends and colleagues.
Our counterintuitive conclusion about advice seeking emerges from a series of experiments we conducted between 2010 and 2013 with behavioral scientist Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In one of these studies, which were published earlier this year, we asked 199 students to complete a “challenging brainteaser” that consisted of seven IQ test questions. We told half of the subjects that they would be paid $1 for each correct answer. We told the other half that they would be paid based on a partner's rating of their competence on a scale from 1 to 7 and would earn $1 for each point on the rating scale. Before answering the questions, participants could send a message to their partner, who had purportedly completed the brainteaser earlier. They could ask their partner for advice (“Hey, can you give me any advice?”), send no message or send a neutral greeting (“Hey, I hope you did well”).
We found that 73.5 percent of participants who were paid based on their accuracy sought advice, whereas just 32.7 percent of those who were paid to make a good impression did. In other words, people were two times less likely to seek advice when they focused on appearing competent in the eyes of their partner.
In another study in this series, we collected data from the perspective of the person whose advice was being sought. We told 170 students that they would be matched with an anonymous partner in the same room. In reality, the partner was just a computer program. Subjects had to complete a brainteaser under time pressure and then were told that their partner would complete the same brainteaser later in the study. After the participants completed the problem, they received one of the following two messages from their partner: “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or, simply, “I hope it went well.” Then they evaluated their partner's competence and indicated how likely they would be to ask their partner for advice on a similar problem-solving task.
Compared with those receiving the neutral greeting, participants who were asked for advice both rated their partner as more competent and reported that they would be more likely to ask their partner for advice on a similar task in the future. Thus, being asked for advice increased judgments of the advice seeker's competence. In this work, we also learned why being asked for guidance has this positive effect: the request flatters the adviser and increases his or her self-confidence. When others ask for our advice, therefore, we think that they were smart to come to us for help!
In general, flattery reflects positively on the flatterer, even if the fawning is insincere. In studies published in 2010 marketing researchers Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta, both then at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, found that people who were given a printed advertisement from a department store that complimented their sense of fashion had higher opinions of the store than did those who received the same ad without any flattering message.
Asking for favors
Soliciting advice is an effective strategy not only when we are facing a difficult task but also when we have made a mistake or experienced failure or conflict. In her Ph.D. thesis, published in 2010, organizational behavior scholar Katie A. Liljenquist, then at Northwestern University, had M.B.A. students engage in a simulated performance review. When those playing the role of a junior manager received a surprisingly negative performance review and asked for advice on how to improve, those playing their bosses considered them to be more likable and competent than those who did not. Similarly, Liljenquist found that when facing conflict in negotiations, asking your counterpart for advice increases perspective taking, leading to a more rapid and likely resolution of the conflict.
Another unfounded assumption is the fear that people will refuse requests for information or assistance, leaving us embarrassed. In research published in 2008 organizational behavior researcher Francis Flynn and social psychologist Vanessa Bohns, both then at Columbia University, told participants to ask for favors in campus settings after estimating how many people they thought would comply with their requests. The favors included borrowing a stranger's cell phone to make a call, soliciting individuals to fill out questionnaires, and asking students to help locate the campus gym and walk at least two blocks toward it. Participants estimated that they would have to ask 50 percent more people than they actually needed to ask.
The power of advice seeking has limits. For example, in one of our recent studies we asked people to identify areas of personal strength and weakness, such as their knowledge of sports, musical instruments or geography. Next, an experimenter approached them for advice in their area of self-identified weakness. The nonexperts were perplexed by these requests and viewed the asker as less competent for seeking their help. This makes sense: you cannot stroke someone's ego when they are 100 percent sure they are not knowledgeable about a topic. Yet in a final study in the same paper, we found that even asking for advice on a very easy task—although it did not increase judgments of competence—did not harm evaluations either. Asking for advice is not nearly as risky an endeavor as we tend to think.