The “Maybe Favour”: We More Readily Commit To Helping A Stranger If We Might Not Have To Follow Through

By Emma Young

Imagine that a neighbour asks for a favour — to help move some garden furniture at the weekend, say. Now imagine that, instead, they explain that they’d lined up a friend to help, but that friend has become ill, and you’ll only be required if they’re not better in time.

Rather than a firm favour, this second scenario involves what the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied dub a “maybe favour”. And, Michael K. Zurn at the University of Cologne and colleagues report, we are more likely to agree to grant these favours than ones that we know for sure we’ll have to come good on. This might not be surprising in itself — but the team goes on to show that exploiting the “maybe favour” effect could have big implications for society.

In a preliminary study, 113 students were presented with various vignettes describing requests for help in moving furniture, either from a close friend or a stranger. The amount of helping time required varied from 10 minutes to an hour, and the likelihood that the participant would actually have to help — in the case of the original helper still being sick — was estimated at 99%, 50%, 10% or 1%. Unsurprisingly, the participants were more likely say they’d help a friend than a stranger. But offers of help to a stranger became more likely when the chance of being needed was low vs high – when, in other words, a “maybe favour” was requested.

For close friends, the team in fact found the opposite pattern. They suspect that if a close friend says that they might need help, this signals that their need isn’t really very high. But the participants’ greater willingness to grant a “maybe favour” to a stranger suggests that just showing this willingness brings the benefits that come from granting a favour, while reducing the expected costs. These benefits could involve simply feeling good about agreeing to help someone else out.

Of course, for every 100 granted and delivered “firm favours”, 100 “maybe favours” will not result in the same total number of good deeds. But, the team reasoned, if we are much more likely to agree to maybe favours than firm favours, this could result in more good deeds overall. So they explored this next.

In two studies on a total of more than 1,000 US residents, participants were offered a 20 cent payment for taking part. After they had read a description of the non-profit environmental organisation The Conservation Fund, half were asked if they wanted to donate their payment to this charity (granting the equivalent of a firm favour). The rest were asked if they wanted to donate their payment, but with the promise that 5% of these donations would be cancelled, and no donation would actually be made. This was the “maybe favour”.

In the first study, 31% of those in the definite-donation group donated their payment, while 47% of those in the maybe group did. Even though 5% of the donations from people in this second group were cancelled, this meant that the team donated a total of US$29.96 from them, but only US $20.60 from the definite-donation group. In a replication of this study, the percentages who agreed to donate were similar, though not quite as different, at 38% and 47%. Though the effect size was smaller this time, the absolute donations from the “maybe” group were still higher ($17.30 vs $15.80).

In further studies that also involved requests for small donations to charity, the team found that whether someone made a definite donation or a maybe-donation — or made a maybe-donation but learned that their donation had been cancelled — they got the same “feel good” feelings as a result. Importantly, then, adding a “maybe” to the donation didn’t affect the subjective benefits of granting it.

It’s worth highlighting one other statistic from the pooled study results: though only 5% of maybe-donators didn’t actually give away the money, donation rates on average were 18% higher for this group. This might also reflect a known cognitive bias: that we tend to overweight small probabilities (and underweight high probabilities). So, though the probability of having the donation revoked was small, it had an over-sized impact on decision-making.  

Overall, “our findings show that with a simple ‘maybe’ we can capitalise on fundamental biases of human cognition to get more good deeds done,” the researchers write.

In theory, introducing a “maybe” to a pledge might have a big net impact not just on the total value of charitable donations, say, but also blood or organ donations, or a willingness to help refugees, the team suggests.

Of course, these studies involved very small amounts of money that the participants didn’t possess in the first place. More work is needed to explore how this maybe effect might play out in the real world. But, the team concludes, “we think that in times where altruism and solidarity are needed more than ever, this simple intervention may be used to really get more good deeds done.”

Maybe favors: How to get more good deeds done

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest