Stranger Danger Isn't as Bad as You Think

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760-733-9969. 46 771 793 336. They may look like ordinary phone numbers (although the European one is cooler), but back in the day, you could dial these digits to reach not your mom or your best friend, but rather a stranger. That 760 number went to a now famous phone booth in the Mojave Desert (its legacy lives on, via the same 10 digits). The second number connected callers to a random Swede. Needless to say, it was a hit.

These pro-stranger examples, however, are not the rule.

Research shows that people significantly underestimate strangers’ willingness to help.

In a review of her own research, Vanessa Bohns, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, found that people who request help from strangers underestimate compliance by 48 percent. Her work, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science this year, demonstrates that people think they will have to ask far more people for aid than they actually need to — be it asking for a charitable donation, use of a cellphone or answers to a survey.

The finding provides some evidence for the TED Talk above, by Kio Stark. Stark argues that interactions with strangers can be beautiful interruptions to days given over to routines and tasks and commutes —and even a kind of resistance. “Seeing someone as an individual is a political act,” she argues in her TED Talk — an idea she expands upon in TED book out next month. Talking to a stranger, Stark argues, can be better than talking to your significant other or your BFF. There are fewer consequences, for one, which probably explains why your UberPOOL conversations can get deep and heavy very quickly.

Bohns knows just how terrified people can be of strangers, though. At Cornell, she has seen study participants opt out when they’re told they’ll have to ask strangers for help. “They panic,” she says. “They get so anxious. They ask questions like, ‘What if nobody agrees to help?’ ” Early in her career, Bohns worked on an entirely different body of work that required her to get survey results. The results weren’t so interesting — except for the fact that so many people had agreed to help in the first place. She decided to study stranger interaction.

According to Bohns’ work, strangers report being helpful because they thought awkwardness would arise if they said no. Though it’s counterintuitive, no matter the size of the request — whether it’s filling out a one-page survey or a 10-page survey — people say yes about the same amount in Bohns’ studies. Strangers will work hard to fulfill requests too. In a not-yet-published study, Bohns’ data shows how strangers go above and beyond when told that the more trivia questions they answer in a packet, the better shot a person has at winning a competition. They answer far more questions than expected. In another study, people indicated that they believe strangers will help more if offered money. But that’s not the case — Bohns says strangers will help the same percent of the time, whether paid or unpaid.

Of course, our pessimism about strangers’ willingness to help isn’t totally off. They will help about 50 percent of the time, according to Bohns’ work. Plus, you might not want to go talking to strangers and making lots of requests if they’re in a van that says “Free Candy,” or if they’re wearing a clown suit and it’s not your birthday party. They’ll probably say yes, but you might have been better off DIY.

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