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The Hidden Power of Getting Things Done By Asking For Favors: Scientifically Proven Ways

Last updated 03/21/2024 by

Andrew Latham
There are few things as awkward and painful as asking for a favor, particularly when you really need the help and you’re rejected. So, if you are in the uncomfortable position of having to ask for help, you might as well maximize your chance of success.
Here are scientifically proven methods that will improve your odds of mooching from friends, relatives or even complete strangers.
Or, if you are sick of being the target of people asking for favors, you can also use these tips to immunize yourself from the tricks moochers play on their marks.

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Give a Good Reason and Offer to Return the Favor

One of my favorite studies in the science of asking for favors was performed by researchers from Stanford University and the Max Planck Institute. Their case study analyzed nearly three years of data from the Random Acts of Pizza community. The Random Acts of Pizza is a sub-community of Reddit that provides a platform where people request free pizza and complete strangers fulfill the request. That is, of course, only if they find the poster’s story compelling enough.
The study found four factors that increased the chances of someone getting pizza: gratitude, reciprocity, a good story, and the status of the person making the request.
In other words, pizza was often given to people who expressed gratitude before the request, or promised to pay back to the community in the future. Also, successful pizza requests included a good reason for asking for help, such as losing a job or being broke. Those with a high status in the community were more likely to get their requests granted.

Our Advice:

Thank people for their help even before they agree to perform the favor. Promise to return the favor in the future. Provide a compelling reason to need the favor; and focus on targets who are part of a community where you enjoy a high status, such as your family, church, school, or sports team.

Pull a Ben Franklin on Your Target

Despite the name, this does not involve bribing your target with a $100 note. It’s a much simpler and cheaper method, though rather counter-intuitive. The trick is to ask a favor from someone who has already granted you a favor, however small. Research shows that people who have already agreed to do you bidding are more likely to help than those who you have helped in the past.
This tendency, which is often call the Ben Franklin effect, is a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome that was first recorded by Ben Franklin in his autobiography. It has since been confirmed by several studies, such as the classic research by Jecker and Landy.
Their study involved a quiz contest where participants received substantial prizes. After the contest, a third of the participants (group A) were approached by the researcher and asked to return the money because he was using his own cash and he was running out of funds. Another third (group B) were asked by the secretary to return the money because the psychology department were running short of money. The final third (group C) were the test group and were not approached by anyone. The three groups were then asked to say how much they liked the researcher. The participants in the group the researcher had personally asked for help liked him more than both group B and the test group. The people in the group the secretary had approached disliked the researcher more than the members of the two other groups.

Our Advice:

Ask for favors personally and get people to first grant you a small favor they are unlikely to refuse before you move in with what you really want.

Get Them to Turn You down First

Don’t be discouraged if someone rejects you when you ask for a favor. According to research by Daniel Newark and other researchers at Stanford, you should focus on people who have rejected you. There is a higher chance they will do what you ask the second time. (Harvard Business Review)
The study looked at the response participants received when asking complete strangers for two favors: filling out a survey and dropping a letter at the post office. The study concluded that people who said no to the first request were more likely than you would expect to agree to another request. For instance, 43% of the people who said no to the survey agreed to posting the letter.
Newark argues that we tend to minimize the discomfort and guilt people feel when they refuse to do a favor. Although there are some really unhelpful people out there, most of us like to think of ourselves as generous and caring individuals. Rejecting people challenges that view of ourselves, so we try extra-hard to not make a habit of rejecting people.

Our Advice:

Start off by requesting a favor the target is unlikely to agree to, and follow with what you really want to increase your chances of success. When asking the same people for favors, mix it up between this method and the Ben Franklin effect to keep your targets guessing.

Constantly Nod Your Head like a Moron While Asking for a Favor

Psychologists have long recommended subtly copying the posture, mannerisms, accent and tone of voice of people you want to draw close to. Even when we don’t have a hidden agenda, we tend to copy the people we talk to. What you probably didn’t know, is that our tendency to internalize gestures and body language is so strong we are more likely to agree with something, even if doing so will cost us money, if we are nodding our head while we hear it.
This effect was discovered by Gary Wells and Richard Petty in their case study: The Effects of Over Head Movements on Persuasion. The researchers recruited 72 of students and told them they were doing market research for a brand of high-end headphones. The students were divided into three groups of 24 and were played a radio editorial that argued for the raising of the tuition costs of their university from $587 to $750.
The students in the first group were instructed to nod their head vigorously while listening to the radio editorial to test the quality of the headsets. The students in the second group were asked to shake their heads instead. The third group was the control group; they weren’t given any head-movement instructions. Once they were finished, the students were asked what they felt would be a fair dollar amount for undergraduate tuition per year.
Amazingly, those who were nodding during the editorial agreed with the speaker’s argument and felt tuition costs should rise to an average of $646! The students who didn’t move their heads while listening to the editorial arguing for a raise in tuition prices answered on average $582, the current rate. Those who were asked to shake their heads disagreed with the editorial and felt the tuition should be lowered not raised.

Our Advice:

People are more easily persuaded if they are nodding while listening to a request. Nod your head lightly but continuously while asking for a favor. Your target will soon mimic your gesture and will be more likely to agree with you.
What we can learn from all this is that altruism is a hugely underestimated quality. We just love to help. Yet, we are biased when deciding who to help and who to reject. We are more likely to fall for well thought-out sob stories, for people we respect, for people we have already rejected or helped in the past, or if we just happen to be nodding our heads while being asked for a favor.
In a nutshell, we are suckers to moochers. But you probably didn’t need a bunch of scientific studies to know that.

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Andrew Latham

Andrew is the Content Director for SuperMoney, a Certified Financial Planner®, and a Certified Personal Finance Counselor. He loves to geek out on financial data and translate it into actionable insights everyone can understand. His work is often cited by major publications and institutions, such as Forbes, U.S. News, Fox Business, SFGate, Realtor, Deloitte, and Business Insider.

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