How to Decide Who Will Help Us?
Imagine moving to a new apartment in a foreign city. You bought a table and now you need to assemble it. You find this task rather difficult to do alone. You need someone to help you. But who? You don't know anyone nearby. When you moved in, you met the people in the two apartments next to you. In one apartment lives a young man who has a square jaw, high forehead, and heavy eyebrows, features that you associate with dominance. By contrast, the person in the other apartment has a rounded face, large eyes, thin eyebrows—a babyface—thus he appears more submissive. Which of these two will you ask to help you? How, if at all, does their appearance influence your decision?
We are advised to not “judge a book by its cover,” that is, to not judge others based on their appearance. Yet, one reason for this advice is that in fact, we often do just that. As a result, we also react to a dominant-appearing person quite differently than we react to someone who appears to be submissive. In our research, we tested if people judge the willingness of a person to agree to help a stranger who asks for help, based on how dominant or submissive the prospective helper appears to be. In addition, we explored the influence of the appearance of the person asking for help.
Dominant and submissive appearance are relevant in this situation because these characteristics are associated with attributes that are relevant both to someone seeking another’s help and the potential helper. First, dominant people are assumed to be more competent than submissive people. It is reasonable to assume that when you seek someone’s help you would like your helper to be competent and hence likely more effective. Yet, the fact that the potential helper is competent is an advantage only if this person is willing to give us a hand. In other words, when we ask someone for help we need to estimate the likelihood that they actually will help. And since dominant people are also perceived as less approachable than submissive ones, they may also be seen as less likely to agree to help.
At the same time, how submissive or dominant the person seeking help appears to be may also matter in this scenario. On one hand, people who appear submissive seem less competent and are expected to be more in need of help, hence a potential helper might feel obliged to help. On the other hand, people who seem dominant are the kind of people that are more likely to get what they asked of others. Hence, they may be perceived as ones whose request for help will not be denied.
In our research, participants saw photographs of two men or two women. One was described as seeking help and the other as the potential helper. In some photos, both helper and help-seeker appeared either dominant or submissive, or one had a dominant and the other a submissive appearance. Participants recruited from a crowdsourcing panel first read a story in which a person seeks help and then guessed how likely is the help-seeker to ask the potential helper for help, and how likely is the potential helper to help if asked.
We used different scenarios to describe different help situations. Help was required either to assemble furniture, to find technical information, or to obtain a loan. These contexts were chosen because they involve different forms of effort from the helper. What we found was that in all help domains, the submissive person was judged as the one more likely to agree to help if asked to do so.
Participants also saw submissive appearing people as more caring and helpful by nature. Thus, people prefer potential kindness over competence when it comes to seeking help. However, the dominant or submissive appearance of the person seeking help was not important for judgments of help likelihood or asking for help. In a follow-up study, participants also reported preferring to ask for help from a submissive person when they themselves needed help.
Thus, although we are advised to not judge people by appearance, we seem to make important decisions such as whom to ask for help based on the appearance of the potential helpers. In other domains such as risk-taking tendencies, judgments of dominant people are quite aligned with how dominant people perceive themselves. It is possible that in this context also, people have a rather good sense of the actual likelihood that a dominant-looking or submissive-looking person will help them.
For Further Reading
Hareli, S., Smoly, M., & Hess, U. (2018). Help me Obi-Wan; The influence of facial dominance on perceptions of helpfulness. Social Influence, 13(3), 163-176. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510.2018.1500944
Shlomo Hareli is an Israeli psychologist, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the Department of Business Administration at the University of Haifa. His research focuses on the social perception of emotions.
Michael Smoly is an Israeli electrical engineer serving as Quality Assurance Manager at INSIGHTEC. Hand in hand with this position, he studied at the Department of Business Administration at the University of Haifa and earned a PhD in business administration.
Ursula Hess is a German psychologist who teaches at the Humboldt-University of Berlin as Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at the Department of Psychology. Her research on the communication of emotions.