Why Do We Hesitate Before Extending A Helping Hand?

Psychologist James Dungan Explains why thinking twice before giving support just makes you human, not a villain.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 19, 2022

A new study published in Psychological Science shows why it is perfectly normal to feel reluctant before extending support to someone in need — and that it doesn't make you a bad person.

I recently spoke to psychologist James Dungan of the University of Chicago to understand why we hesitate before performing what is obviously a prosocial behavior. Here is a summary of our conversation.

We generally assume that people would feel good about themselves when extending help to someone in need. What made you identify and study this reluctance people experience when reaching out with social support?

The project started when an old friend of our co-author, David Munguia Gomez, tragically lost his father. David recalls questioning just how beneficial reaching out to this friend back home would be.

He couldn't do anything to bring his friend's father back. Would one more person offering their condolences mean anything, especially when he wasn't there in person?

David also wanted to make sure that his reason for reaching out was because he believed it would bring his friend some comfort, not because it would make himself feel good or because it's just what you're supposed to do when something like this happens.

I think this anecdote really exemplifies how powerfully our expectations drive our behavior. If we were guaranteed a happy outcome, we might not hesitate to express our support. But real life is more uncertain and when it comes time to pick up the phone and call, doubt often creeps in.

In the abstract, giving and receiving support generally sounds great, but that positivity seems to quickly disappear when thinking concretely about what to do or say in a particular circumstance.

In the end, David did call his friend to express his support and his friend in turn expressed that he really appreciated the message. I'm sure if David knew just how much his call would mean to his friend, he would've been less uncertain about whether to reach out.

It was with this experience in mind that we set out to investigate if people do in fact systematically underestimate how positively recipients respond to their expressions of support.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

It was important to use several different methods to best capture how people feel about giving and receiving support.

We collected online responses from people imagining giving support, asked people to send real messages of support to someone they know, and brought people into the lab to express support to complete strangers face-to-face.

This diversity allowed us to capture feelings of giving and receiving support in a wide range of situations and relationships.

One key aspect of our studies is that we were able to measure both people's expectations of expressing support and their actual experience after expressing it.

By comparing the two, we were able to see that people's expectations were overly pessimistic; that is, recipients consistently responded more positively to people's expressions of support than people initially expected.

What causes people to hesitate when offering support to someone even though most people know it is the better thing to do?

Everyone knows that receiving genuine support feels good. The hesitancy comes from wondering whether you should be the one to offer it.

Maybe it's not your place or someone else is better positioned to provide support. What would you even say? Should you give them a hug or would that be weird? There are likely several thoughts and feelings preventing people from expressing support as readily and often as they might otherwise.

One possibility that we test in the paper is if people deciding whether to express support focus on different aspects of support than recipients do. Because expressers must choose how to express their support, their focus may be on their own competence at effectively expressing it.

In contrast, recipients aren't aware of what was going on in the expresser's head – only if they actually reached out or not – meaning recipients may focus relatively more on the warmth and kindness that a sincere expression of support conveys.

This is exactly what we found. When expressing support, people thought primarily about how useful recipients would think their support was or how capable of fixing the recipient's problem they were.

When receiving support, people instead thought primarily about how grateful and appreciative they were and how caring and concerned the expresser seemed. These differing perspectives could be part of why expressers underestimate how positively recipients would respond to their expressions of support.

What advice would you have for someone who often feels an overwhelming reluctance when trying to offer support to someone?

Try to reflect on where your reluctance is coming from. There are many practical reasons why people may not be able to offer support to someone in need.

For example, people may feel they are not in a stable enough position emotionally, physically, or financially to support someone else.

Our work focuses specifically on situations when people are willing and able to offer support, but nevertheless, avoid doing so because they are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.

If this describes your situation, your fears are likely exaggerated in that your support is likely to be received better than you expect.

If that argument is unconvincing, one piece of advice is to try to focus on the genuine warmth and concern that you would like to convey by offering support to someone rather than agonizing about what exactly to say.

Our work suggests that finding the perfect words may be less important than reaching out in the first place to express that you care. Viewing expressions of support as being primarily about empathy and connection hopefully feels less overwhelming than finding a solution to their problem or getting your message just right.

What practical takeaways would you have for someone reading this interview?

One suggestion from our work is that people may think too narrowly about who they can support. We found that people felt increasingly pessimistic about how well their support would be received the more distant their relationship was to the recipient.

In other words, people felt more uneasy about expressing support to mere acquaintances than to close friends and family.

Importantly, however, recipients actually felt similarly positive about receiving support regardless of whether it was a friend or a more distant acquaintance who had reached out to them.

So, one practical takeaway is to try to recognize just how many opportunities you have to help people in your lives whether they are a friend, co-worker, or even a total stranger.

Another practical suggestion, as mentioned above, is to not get too caught up in writing the perfect message or wracking your brain about how to express your support most effectively.

Agonizing over what exactly to do or say may be a mistake to the extent that it stops you from reaching out in the first place and expressing that you care.