Help, at a distance

Help, at a distance – psychology of approaching strangers

Peter Glick

Help, at a distance

If you have ever asked a stranger to perform a small favor, such as signing a petition, you may have noticed that you are more successful with people who look like you. In fact, psychologists have known for quite some time that people are more generous to strangers with whom they appear to share membership in some social group than to those with whom they appear to have less in common.

Along with my students Judith Abbott and Carla Hotze, I sought to discover how one might combat this tendency and elicit help from a dissimilar stranger. We had two college-age women approach adults in a shopping mall with a small request–to fill out a short survey. One of the students was dressed decidedly unlike most adults in the shopping mall–as a punk-rocker. The other student took on the role of a preppie. We reasoned that under ordinary circumstances, the punker would be less likely to receive help than would the preppie.

One reason that we thought our punker would run into trouble is that people are simply much more anxious about dealing with someone outside their own social group.

One factor related to such anxiety is distance. We all know how uncomfortable it is to have our personal space invaded by a stranger. Typically we are comfortable only when strangers stand at an appropriate distance, and we reserve closer distances for acquaintances.

With this in mind, we had our preppie and punker vary the distance they sat away from adults seated alone at tables in the shopping mall. Each table had four seats, allowing our help-seekers to sit either right next to the person at the table (near), directly across from the person (medium) or in the seat diagonally across the table (far). We found that the medium distance was normal for conversations between strangers in this situation.

As expected, the punker was helped less often than the preppie at the near and medium distances. However, this disadvantage disappeared when the punker sat farther away. Although only 1 in 15 people consented to help the punker when she sat right next to them and 40 percent agreed to help when she sat at the medium distance, 80 percent of the people agreed to help her when she took the seat farthest away. And when asked later, participants who sat closest to the punker said that they felt the most anxious when approached; those sitting farthest away were the least anxious.

On the practical side, if you need help from a stranger, consider where you stand. If the other person appears to be like you, stand at a distance normal for conversation. If, on the other hand, he or she is dissimilar in appearance, you can completely erase this disadvantage with one simple step–a step back.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group