Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

If you want something, just ask!

As someone who very rarely asks questions for some unknown reason that makes asking for anything difficult, I was intrigued to find out that asking questions really can give you what you want and shouldn’t be something to be afraid of.

Rather than thinking about asking questions, think about all the times you have been asked to do something and you’ll realise that you often feel obliged to say yes to someone’s request (well I do anyway!). And if you often feel obliged to say yes, then it’s likely other people also feel obliged to say yes in response to your questions.  As mentioned in Hills (2014) we often underestimate the power that just asking someone to do something has on persuading them to perform the behaviour we want. This is seen in Flynn and Lake (2008), who asked participants to predict how many people they would need to ask in order to get 5 people to complete their survey. Results showed that people had to ask around 10 people to get 5 responses, but this was overestimated. Bohns (2016) stated that people often underestimate compliance to their request by around 48%; resulting from a failure to identify the contribution that the awkwardness of saying “no” to a request has on someone’s response.

There are many studies which show the effect of “just asking”, such as that by Langer, Blank and Chanowitz (1978). They conducted a study in which someone tried to break into a line at a copy machine. Around 60% of people were happy to let the person break into the line if they simply just asked “Excuse me, I have 5 pages, can I use the machine?” This increased to around 90% with the addition of information such as “I’m in a hurry”

So considering asking can get us the things we want, why don’t we always “just ask”? Bohns and Flynn (2010) demonstrated across 4 studies that people who are in a position to provide help tend to underestimate the role embarrassment plays in deciding whether to ask for help or not. Help-seekers may feel embarrassment and anxiety in exposing their incompetence and inadequacies (Bohns & Flynn, 2015). Bohns & Flynn (2015) also stated that empathy gaps can lead those who need help to underestimate the availability of help and potential helpers to underestimate the need for help. They suggest that more needs to be done to facilitate cooperation between help-seekers and help providers, which could be achieved explicitly stating the help you need and the help you are willing to offer. But perhaps we need to pluck up the courage to “just ask” more often, rather than over-evaluating the various potential outcomes.

So the next time you are having an internal debate about whether to ask for something, just go for it, because unless you do, you won’t ever truly know what the outcome could be.


Bohns, V. K. (2016). (Mis) Understanding our influence over others: A review of the underestimation-of-compliance effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science25(2), 119-123.

Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2010). “Why didn’t you just ask?” Underestimating the discomfort of help-seeking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology46(2), 402-409.

Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2015). Empathy Gaps Between Helpers and HelpSeekers: Implications for Cooperation. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource.

Flynn, F. J., & Lake, V. K. (2008). If you need help, just ask: underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of personality and social psychology95(1), 128.

Hills, T. (2014). If You Want More Out of Life, Just Ask. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Langer, E. J., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of" placebic" information in interpersonal interaction. Journal of personality and social psychology36(6), 635.

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