When was the last time you asked someone for help?
Many of us might think back to bigger moments—like a ride to the airport or talking through a personal problem—but it turns out that asking for (and receiving) help is such a common occurrence that we might not even notice how often we do it. For example, we can ask someone to pass the salt at dinner or to open the window for some fresh air.
In fact, across eight cultures from the U.K. and Poland to Ecuador and Ghana, a new study found that people ask for help every three minutes—and they usually get the help they need.
These interactions, when repeated dozens or more times each day, show how being cooperative and helpful is part of our social fabric. “Large-scale social realities are built out of small-scale moments like these,” write UCLA assistant professor Giovanni Rossi and his coauthors.
In the new study, published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, the researchers looked at requests for help that occurred in everyday social interactions. Participants were filmed during a variety of interactions, such as sharing a meal, having a conversation, or participating in activities together (such as cooking or playing a game).
In total, the researchers observed 363 people, in settings such as family homes, college campuses, and rural villages. The researchers made a concerted effort to include participants from both Western and non-Western countries, to help counter the fact that many research studies have only studied participants in affluent, industrialized societies. Here is what they found.
Asking for help is quite common. On average, during the social interactions recorded, someone requested help about once every two to three minutes (either verbally or nonverbally, such as reaching or pointing toward a needed item). In total, people indicated they needed help 1,100 times in the video recordings analyzed. And, the researchers found, people were generally accommodating of requests—about three times more likely to help someone than ignore or deny their request, and about seven times more likely to help someone than provide an outright rejection.
Although there was some variation in how often people ignored requests for assistance, the researchers found that they were much more likely to provide assistance than ignore someone who expressed a need. Additionally, the researchers found that people were equally likely to help family and non-family.
We often help without speaking. In addition to looking at whether people helped, the researchers also looked into whether participants responded verbally. For example, if you ask a family member to pass the salt, they can say, “Sure!” or just hand over the salt quietly. The researchers found that, typically, participants didn’t give a verbal response when they complied with the other person’s request.
However, this was one area in which the researchers did find a cultural difference: People who spoke English or Italian were more likely to respond verbally when complying with a request to help, which the researchers suggest may have been due to a tendency for English and Italian speakers to phrase their need for assistance as a question. For example, you might say, “Can you pass the salt?” rather than “Please pass the salt.”
We usually give an explanation when we can’t help. The researchers also looked at how people responded when they didn’t agree to help. While help was often provided wordlessly, when people declined to help, they were likely to give a reason (e.g., “Sorry, my hands are full!”).
Additionally, even when people declined to help, directly saying “no” to a request was relatively uncommon. Instead, they might explain why they couldn’t help, without actually using the word “no.” The researchers suggest that this may be because, across cultures, there is a norm to help. When we don’t help, we are breaking this norm, so there is more of a need to provide an explanation. These helping behaviors can have a cumulative effect on our reputation—we don’t want to be known as a person who isn’t helpful—so from this perspective, it makes sense that we would want to explain ourselves when we aren’t able to help.
Nick Enfield, professor of linguistics from the University of Sydney and the study’s corresponding author, explains that one way the present study differs from past cross-cultural research on helping is that it investigated real-world actions, while past research often focused on hypothetical scenarios. Enfield suggests that some of these scenarios (such as deciding how to allocate a relatively large sum of money) may be ones that participants are less familiar with, so they may not be as representative of how people actually act in their daily lives.
The current study shows us just how interdependent we as humans are. The researchers write that humans have a “uniquely evolved cooperative psychology.” In other words, giving assistance to others seems to be a cultural universal rooted in our biology.
In addition to asking for help in the larger moments of our lives, we ask for and provide help to others many times throughout the day. While each individual moment—asking someone to pass a utensil or pour a cup of coffee—is relatively small in nature, these types of interactions add up over time. Taking time to assist others builds our reputation as helpful and cooperative, and it helps to lay the groundwork for cooperation in our community and in our world.