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'Hidden Brain': How 'Egocentric Bias' Can Lead Us Astray


So when was the last time you needed help from a stranger? Approaching someone you don't know for assistance can be stressful, right? Well, NPR's Shankar Vedantam looks at why making requests of others can feel daunting and what this might tell us about our own mental biases.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When Vanessa Bohns was a graduate student at Columbia University, she worked on a study that required her to get strangers at New York's Penn Station to fill out questionnaires.

VANESSA BOHNS: I still have flashbacks of going (laughter) down to Penn Station because it was so distressing. I would walk in. There'd be people kind of walking all over the place, and then there'd be people just sitting down waiting for their trains. So I'd usually go up to the person who was sitting there waiting for their train, you know, doing whatever they do to kind of occupy their time. And I would say, excuse me. Will you please fill out this survey?

VEDANTAM: It felt incredibly awkward - stepping into someone's space, disturbing them, asking them to stop doing what they were doing and to do something she wanted them to do. As Bohns waited for an answer, her palms began to sweat. Her heart started beating faster.

BOHNS: It was a really sort of palpable fear that they were going to reject me or worse - right? - say something mean. I don't even know what, but I expected them to say something terrible.

VEDANTAM: Bohns remembers being hugely relieved when she was done and could head back to her lab at Columbia. When her professor, Frank Flynn, started looking at the data, he noticed something intriguing.

BOHNS: Frank was like, I can't believe how many people are actually saying yes to you.

VEDANTAM: Total strangers disrupted from reading their newspaper or eating a sandwich or watching the crowds of people at the busy train station - they were like, sure. I'll respond to your questionnaire.

BOHNS: We were really surprised by how many people were agreeing, in New York Penn Station, to do this survey.

VEDANTAM: The reason Flynn and Bohns were surprised that so many people said yes is because they expected people to say no. They realized that this gap between their assumptions and how people actually responded reveals something interesting about the mind. They suspected that we greatly underestimate our influence over other people. To test this theory, they put together a study.

BOHNS: We decided to bring participants into the lab and have them do basically what I had done on those number of days. So we said, hey. We're going to have you go out and ask people to, as our first step, fill out a survey, just like I had done. And how many people do you think are going to say yes to you? We made them estimate how many people they thought would agree, go out and actually ask people. And what we found was that they really underestimated the number of people who would agree to that request.

VEDANTAM: Volunteers didn't seem to understand the influence they had. They thought that others would find it easy to turn down their requests. Bohns realized that the volunteers were experiencing an egocentric bias. They were so consumed with their own perceptions that they failed to see things from the other person's point of view.

BOHNS: It's this really interesting phenomenon where you have these two people interacting with one another. And they're both so focused on their own personal anxieties and insecurities and concerns with embarrassment that they don't realize that the other person is feeling that way too. So it's this really interesting situation where being so inwardly focused on your own anxieties makes it so difficult for you to recognize what the situation really is for itself.


VEDANTAM: Vanessa Bohns is now a psychologist at Cornell University. In a series of experiments, she has demonstrated how unaware most of us are of the power we wield over others. In one study, she worked with volunteers raising money for a medical charity. She asked the volunteers how many people they would have to solicit to meet their fundraising goals, which were typically thousands of dollars. The volunteers estimated they would need to ask about 200 people to meet their goal.

BOHNS: What we found is that they actually only had to ask about half that. So they only had to ask about a hundred people in order to reach their fundraising goals.

VEDANTAM: The egocentric bias of the volunteers caused them to focus on their own anxieties. They ignored what the interactions might have felt like to the person they were asking for money.

BOHNS: You're thinking about what you're asking. I'm asking this person for money. Will this person give me money? What you're not doing is thinking about, what if you were sitting there, you know, potentially in your cubicle, and a co-worker came up to you and said, hey, I'm participating in a race. Would you be willing to sponsor me? If you were sitting there, it'd be really hard to say no to your co-worker, right? It'd be really hard to let them down. It'd be really awkward. What would you even say? And so people are kind of put on the spot, and they find it really difficult to say no. So they go ahead and agree.

VEDANTAM: Vanessa has also looked at how the same dynamic can shape another common occurrence in the workplace - unwanted romantic attention.

BOHNS: We ran a couple of studies where we asked people about their experiences being asked out at work or asking someone out at work. And we asked people to imagine situations where they weren't interested in the other person or the other person wasn't interested in them. And what we found is that people who ask somebody out at work and were rejected thought that it was pretty easy for that person to reject them, right? They didn't think that that person experienced a whole lot of distress. And they didn't think that they changed their behavior very much after being asked out.

VEDANTAM: Those assumptions did not match the feelings of the person who had been asked out.

BOHNS: When people recalled situations where they were asked out by someone at work who they weren't interested in, they described feeling obligated to say yes and feeling much more uncomfortable saying no to the person. And they reported doing all sorts of things to try to avoid that person that the other person didn't realize that they were doing.


BOHNS: So in fact, this little request, you know, we tell people to just go for it and ask this person out. It actually puts a lot more pressure on the other person than we tend to realize when we're the ones doing the asking.


VEDANTAM: So the next time you want to ask someone for something, put yourself in their shoes. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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