Receiving help can sting. Admitting that others can do what you can’t and feeling indebted to them can lead to a sense of dependence and incompetence, and even resentment towards the very person who helped you. Luckily, Katherina Alvarez and Esther van Leeuwen have published some helpful research on one way to take the sting away.
Their study asked student participants to complete a series of tricky maths puzzles. If a puzzle was stumping them, assistance was available in the form of help cards supposedly written by another student more experienced with these puzzles. For some participants, these cards simply provided the solution whereas others provided hints to help the participants figure it out themselves.
The first type of help is considered “dependency-oriented”, meaning the helper takes over and fixes things on the recipient’s behalf. Participants who received this type of help later rated themselves as less competent and respected, and they felt less happy about seeking the help compared to those who received hints.
Hints help you solve your own problems, so are “autonomy-oriented”, and participants who got these, felt the card creator was more similar to themselves, as well as more qualified and well-intentioned. This fits with our understanding that dependency-oriented help carries a higher risk of negative reactions.
Alvarez and Van Leeuwen went on to show how recipients of help can bounce back. In a second stage of the study, participants tackled another set of puzzles and were invited to write help cards for three they had answered correctly, for the benefit of future participants. With this shift from help-receiver to helper, all participants reported an increase in confidence, as well as more affinity for their previous helper.
But paying it forward was especially important for those who had previously received dependency-oriented help. Their confidence received a bigger boost, and their affinity to the person helping them jumped up – even though they were not directly repaying the debt to that person. Simply taking a role within a chain of benefactors was enough to instill a sense of re-empowerment. It also turns out that knowing in advance that they would be helping others, made participants more relaxed in the first part of the study – participants given this information were more comfortable with receiving help and had warmer feelings towards the card creator.
We know that systems where help is passed forward can be very effective, for example in propagating health information from professionals on through relays of peers. This research shows us there is also a powerful psychological benefit. Harnessing this could help prevent situations where those deeply in need of support are reluctant to take it.
Alvarez, K., & van Leeuwen, E. (2015). Paying it forward: how helping others can reduce the psychological threat of receiving help Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12270