Why Saying “No” to Requests is so Difficult

Actor Jim Carey was the star of a comedy entitled “Yes Man,” in which, following the advice of a self-help guru, made a decision to say “yes” to every request made of him, rather than the habitual “no’s” that plagued his despondent life. While the movie was entertaining, it emphasized some important points about compliance and influence in our lives, which hasbrecently been examined by researchers. In essence, the research shows that saying no to requests is much more difficult than saying yes.

For many asking your boss for a raise in compensation can be stressful and intimidating. Yet, there’s evidence that says we have greater influence on others than we think we do.

A research study by Vanessa Bhons published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, shows what we fear most is rejection. Yet, Bhons says “research by my colleagues and me suggests that this concern is often unfounded.”

In her study Bohns and her colleagues asked participants in the study to make requests of 14,000 people they did not know. Requests such as borrowing a cell phone or asking for a donation to a charitable cause. Bohns found that the participants in the study were far too pessimistic of their persuasiveness.

The study concluded: “We find that participants underestimate the likelihood that the people they approach will comply with their requests. This error is robust (it persists across various samples and requests) and substantial (on average, requesters underestimate compliance by 48%). We find that this error results from requesters’ failure to appreciate the awkwardness of saying no to a request. In addition to reviewing evidence for the underestimation-of-compliance effect and its underlying mechanism of psychological influence.”

Bohns conducted another experiment in which participants, pretending that their phone was dead, asked random strangers if they could borrow their phone. They had to get three to agree. First, they had the participants predict how many of the strangers they would have to ask to get one to agree. The participants predicted 10. The results: they only had to ask 6 to get three to agree.

In experiments that was similar, participants had to persuade strangers to fill out a questionnaire, provide directions, and even commit a small act of vandalism. The same stastical results. In another experiment 91 participants in a charity run had to ask people to contribute to the charity. They predicted they would have to ask an average of 210 people to reach their financial goal. The result: they had to ask only 122 who agreed.

Bohns concluded that we consistently underestimate if others will agree with our requests — say yes, and overpredict how many will say no.

Bohns says it’s because saying no calls into question the requester’s trustworthiness or the validity of the request. Bohn says “ In essence, by refusing a request, one risks offending one’s interaction partner — a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties.” As a result, Bohns argues, many people agree to things and say yes, even things they would prefer not to do, to avoid the discomfort of saying no.

Bohns also investigated what would happen with repeated requests. The researchers found that the people making the requests assumed that when someone says no to a request, they would also say no if the request was repeated. They were incorrect. The number of people who said no the first time said yes subsequently by an increase of 10%.

Bohns and her team found people who underestimated compliance were more likely to do so in individualistic cultures such as the United States, compared to collectivistic cultures in Southeast Asia.

Bohns and her team also found that people were less likely to say no if given a request in person compared to email, telephone or text.

Bohns research adds important perspective on the science of influence and persuasion, and why saying no to requests is more difficult than saying yes, even to strangers.

Read my latest book: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders,



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others