Once Bitten, Twice Shy? Past Refusal and Future Acceptance - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #271

Once Bitten, Twice Shy? Past Refusal and Future Acceptance

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Nobody likes to be rejected. But according to this Idea, we may be overestimating the chances that our requests will be denied. In particular, contrary to popular expectation, if we have already been rejected in the past then that same potential helper is more (not less) likely to grant a request the second time around.


Would you seek help from someone who has rejected you in the past? Most people are hesitant to ask for favours the first time around, let alone ask someone that has already refused one. However, according to a study led by Stanford University’s Daniel Newark, we often overestimate the chance that our requests will be denied, especially if the same person has turned us down before. In fact, potential helpers may be more likely to agree to a subsequent request after a previous refusal.

Newark and his fellow researchers Francis Flynn and Vanessa Bohns came to this conclusion after running a series of experiments that examine the anticipated effects of past refusals, and what the underlying psychological processes are that drive such estimates.

Their findings suggest there is a fundamental difference in the way that help-seekers and potential helpers interpret rejection; potential helpers feel a guilt-induced discomfort at saying “no” a second time, and are therefore more likely to say “yes” to a second request. On the other hand, help-seekers believe someone that has already rejected them once must be an unhelpful person by nature and unlikely to say “yes” in the future. This combined with feelings of embarrassment and unease, means there is a strong and seemingly unfounded reluctance to ask for help from someone that would in fact be likely to grant such a request.

Methodology: Through four studies, the researchers examined help-seekers’ beliefs about how past refusals affect future compliance. The first assessed the anticipated effect of a past refusal by assigning participants to the perspective of a help-seeker or potential helper. The second study involved a live demonstration where participants approached strangers asking them to fill out a questionnaire. After waiting to see if they would agree or refuse to do so, they then asked the same stranger to drop off a letter at a nearby post office. They found that saying no the first request actually made people more likely to say yes the second time, even though the two favours were equally small.
In the third study, participants were assigned to various conditions and asked to recall a time when they had been asked by someone for a favour that was then rejected/granted. They then imagined asking the same person for a different favour of similar size, and indicated feelings of embarrassment, guilt, etc. This study found that it is discomfort on the part of the help-seeker that makes it more likely for them to say yes to the second favour—something help seekers seemed to pay little attention to.
Finally, in the fourth study, participants imagined asking someone (or being asked) to stay over for the weekend and having that request rejected or accepted. They then imagined asking (or being asked by) the same person to spend a day helping them move. This final study sought to look at what drives help seekers’ estimates of compliance, finding they were focused on dispositional attributions of helpfulness that the potential helpers do not actually consider.


The divergent thought processes that help-seekers and potential helpers experience create a kind of paradox, says Newark: “help seekers may be the least likely to ask for help from those people who in fact are the most likely to help them.” This results in a tendency to keep going back to the same small pool of people that have helped us in the past.

This can have an interesting effect in organizations, where those who say “yes” early on during their tenure get lots of requests in the future. Ultimately, those colleagues may become overburdened, while others remain underutilized, even though this research suggests they might in fact say “yes” if you try them again.

“When someone tells us no,” explains Newark, “it could be because of circumstances that have nothing to do with a person’s willingness to help, and in the long run, we will be better off if we are not quick to write people off after a single rejection.”

So the advice stemming from Newark, Flynn and Bohns research is clear: if someone refuses to do a favour for you, do not hesitate to ask again.  



Once Bitten, Twice Shy: The Effect of a Past Refusal on Expectations of Future Compliance. Daniel A. Newark, Francis J. Flynn & Vanessa K. Bohns. Social Psychology and Personality Science (June 2013).

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Idea conceived

June 4, 2013

Idea posted

Dec 2013
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