When people talk about saying “no” the discussion usually revolves around why we find it so difficult. We want to help, we don’t want to make the other person feel bad, we are afraid of confrontation, we might feel guilty... the list goes on. There is usually a chapter on ‘saying no’ in self-help books, and it’s a popular topic for religious leaders and psychologists. They claim that we must be assertive, value ourselves, defend our rights, and seek relationships with healthy foundations.
But there might be a more intrinsic reason why saying no is so difficult: humans are social creatures and are inherently vulnerable to the suggestions of others.
Many of us assume that the favors we ask of others will only be granted if the other person feels comfortable with them, but we fail to realize that simply by asking we are influencing the other’s actions and willingness to oblige. We don’t consciously think about the degree to which we take cues from other people.
This leads us to underestimate how much power our neighbor who asks us for favors has or the amount of influence we, ourselves, have when we give advice to a relative. We ask favors and give advice without realizing that the person listening will, more often than not, take what we say on board. We agree to things and we say yes because we are unaware of how easily influenced we are.
So what happens when someone asks a favor that is unethical? Do we realize how easy it is to convince someone, and does this influence our decision to ask for unethical things? Do we recognize our tendency to say yes and do we allow our own sense of morality and ethics triumph?
According to one study, in which participants asked strangers to perform unethical acts, the answer to both questions is “no.” No, we do not realize how influential we are, and no, our sense of morality or ethics does not prevail.
In the study, 25 university students asked 108 strangers (also students) to vandalize a library book by writing ‘pickle’ in pen on one of the pages. Before asking the strangers for unethical requests, participants were asked to predict how many people they thought would agree to vandalize the book. More people agreed to the request than the participants expected; on average , students predicted that 28.5% would agree, but closer to 50% of the strangers actually complied. While those asked to vandalize the book protested and demanded that the participants take full responsibility for any consequences, they nonetheless agreed to go along with the vandalism.
Another study, by the same researchers and presented in the same paper, asked 155 participants to contemplate (un)ethical dilemmas, like buying children alcohol and taking office supplies home for personal use. The participants were divided into two groups: one was asked to consider whether or not they would commit the acts and to imagine receiving advice about whether or not to do it, and the second was asked to imagine giving advice to someone else on whether or not to commit the acts. The participants who were considering whether or not they should commit the acts were influenced a great deal by the advice they received and felt more comfortable committing unethical acts if the advice they received supported it. Those doling out the advice did not think their advice would hold much sway and assumed that the comfort level of the first group did not depend on the advice they received.
These sorts of dilemmas are very common in our day-to-day lives. We pressure people to help us out, we ask for discounts, we think little white lies are harmless. But we don’t realize just how influential our suggestions truly are.
Turns out, simply asking for something may help it materialize, and giving advice may lead people to do as you suggest. So, as it turns out, you probably would steal for me.