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It Does Hurt to Ask: Theory and Evidence on Informal Help-Seeking

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posted on 15.05.2020 by Ania Jaroszewicz
Informal, interpersonal help|that is, resources voluntarily transferred between individuals without a formal contract|can be hugely valuable for people in need, yet evidence from ?fields such as ?finance and medicine suggests that people in need do not always actively seek out such
help. Prior work seeking to explain this behavior has largely focused on explanations such as people not recognizing that there is help available or people simply not desiring the help.
In this dissertation, I propose another potential explanation for this puzzle. I hypothesize that one reason why people in need may not ask for help is that they incur a psychological
cost in asking for help|that is, in having a conversation with a potential helper about the fact that they would like to receive help. This \pain of asking" may prevent people from asking
even when they recognize that there is help available, desire that help, and believe that asking would increase their chances of getting the help. Across three papers|a theoretical model and two ?field applications|this dissertation
makes three primary contributions. First, it develops a new framework that describes how people in need decide to ask others for help. Second, it empirically demonstrates the existence and importance of the pain of asking. It shows that not only does asking create psychological costs, but those psychological costs then suppress demand for informal help and can harm economic outcomes. Finally, it offers explanations for what contributes to the pain of asking.
Paper 1, written in collaboration with George Loewenstein and drawing on our joint ongoing work with Roland Benabou, lays the theoretical foundation for the dissertation. It ?first develops a game theoretic model that captures communication between a person who wants help and a person who can provide help. It proposes that, under certain conditions, people in need face a pain of asking: holding constant whether help is transferred, they feel worse if they asked for help than if they did not. The model further explains how and when the pain of asking can prevent people in need from asking for help. In particular, it argues that the person in need is uncertain about the would-be helper's generosity toward or valuation of him. He avoids asking out of fear of being rejected and learning through that rejection that the would-be helper does not truly value him. We also present results from several studies, which test and demonstrate support for the predictions of the model.
Paper 2 examines the importance of \the ask" in a ?financial setting. I ?first argue that informal loans|loans from friends and family|are a hugely important sector of the economy,
yet have received little attention in the literature. Next, I seek to better understand how people decide whether to choose an informal loan over other common alternatives of addressing their ?financial needs. I ?find that although people often believe that informal loans are more economically attractive than other alternatives, they also report that seeking such loans forces them to incur psychological and emotional costs, and in particular the pain of asking. I further ?find that anticipation of the pain of asking seems to predict people's unwillingness to ask their friends and family for ?financial help. While this unwillingness may spare them from incurring some psychological costs, it may also generate economic costs, pushing them towards more expensive methods of addressing their ?financial needs. Finally, Paper 3, joint with George Loewenstein and Amit Tevar, tests whether the pain of asking may have literal life-and-death consequences. In particular, it tests whether the pain of
asking may contribute to end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients' unwillingness to ask friends, family, and strangers for potentially life-saving live kidney donations. As predicted, we ?find that although such patients typically desire and see value in having live kidney donations, only a minority ask potential donors to donate. This pattern of behavior cannot be fully explained by standard economic factors, and instead seems to be driven in large part by the pain of asking.
By incorporating social psychology into a game-theoretic analysis, this dissertation deepens our understanding of the powerful psychology of help-seeking and -giving. Together, the three papers offer a new framework describing how people decide to seek informal, interpersonal help; provide corroborating evidence for the importance of the \pain of asking" in a range of settings; and offer explanations for why, precisely, asking is painful. This work may have
important implications for fi?elds such as health, education, and public economics, which are often concerned with how to most efficiently allocate resources to help those in need. Because formal and informal help are often substitutes, deepening our understanding of how people decide to pursue informal help may shed light on the optimal amount and distribution of public spending on formal help. It may also inform non-policy strategies for better connecting
those in need to valuable resources. For instance, insights from this research could be used to develop online applications for informal lending or educational materials for ESRD patients seeking live kidney donations.
Please address all correspondence to ajaroszewicz@hbs.edu.
Please do not cite without permission.




Degree Type



Social and Decision Sciences

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Linda Babcock Saurabh Bhargava Alex Imas George Loewenstein