You Think You're Helping but You're Making Things Worse
We overestimate our effectiveness in making others feel better.
We want to know if the emotional support we have provided has been beneficial.
Sometimes we think we have helped others feel better even when we have made them feel worse.
We overestimate our efforts especially for people who are already happy and positive in general.
Recent psychological research suggests that when it comes to deciding whether we make someone feel better, we often give ourselves too much credit. This research came out this month. The project was led by Kit Double, in collaboration with me and other researchers from the University of Sydney and Stanford University.
Just how helpful are you?
Let’s imagine that you’re standing around the water cooler when you run into a colleague who is looking stressed and annoyed. Being the helpful type, you give them some friendly advice and tell them a few jokes to help take their mind off their problems. Later in the day, you observe the same colleague smiling and laughing, clearly no longer troubled by whatever ailed them. Do you walk away thinking that you made them feel better with your sage advice and whimsical jokes?
According to this research, when it comes to deciding whether we helped someone feel better we rely too heavily on the base rate. In the case of emotions, the base rate is how often someone typically feels good. The curmudgeonly neighbor down the road has a low base rate, while that super chipper barista who makes your morning latte has a high base rate.
Psychologists have found that when it comes to deciding whether we are causing a particular outcome to occur (like causing someone to feel better) we pay too much attention to the base rate.
What should we be paying attention to? The important thing is the difference in how someone feels when you help them compared to how someone feels when you don’t. How does this work? Let’s imagine your spouse keeps coming home from work in a bad mood. You try and comfort them some nights and leave them to their misery on others. The true test of whether you are a source of comfort is the difference in how your spouse feels on the nights you helped compared to when you didn’t.
What did the study find?
The study explored the effect of the base rate on people's judgments of how much they helped someone feel better.
Participants in the study were told that they would be partnered with another person who was also online at a different location. Their partner would see lots of distressing images. After seeing each image, the partner would rate their feelings on a 1-10 scale from very sad to very happy. Participants saw their partner’s emotion rating after every image.
Participants were told to provide advice to make their partner feel better before seeing the next image. However, they were only able to provide advice on half of the images. In this way, participants could see how the other person felt when they received advice but also, critically, when they did not receive any advice.
At the end of the study, participants rated how much they thought their advice helped the other person feel better, as compared to doing nothing at all. But there was a twist. The other person did not exist at all—the emotion ratings came from an automated computer program. Having responses programmed ahead of time meant the researchers could control whether the image-viewing partner felt A-OK to begin with or was feeling pretty distressed when they saw these images. But here’s the catch, the feedback was exactly the same when participants provided advice and when they didn’t provide any help at all. In other words, their advice had no effect at all on how their partner felt.
Despite this, people whose partners felt fine thought it was because of their amazing advice. Results were even more concerning when the feedback was changed (in a second study) so the partners actually felt worse when participants provided advice. In this second study, people with partners who felt fine (on average) still thought they were making their partner feel better, even though they were making them feel worse.
When people try to help someone who typically feels just fine, they think they are helping when they aren’t. In fact, they think they are helping even when their 'help' makes the other person feel worse.
Why are these findings important?
There are lots of times in life when you really need to know if your efforts to help another person feel better have been successful.
In a workplace setting, managers might want to know if the emotional support they have provided has been beneficial to stressed-out employees. If a manager thinks what they are doing is working, they will do it again next time. Similarly, being a supportive friend or partner involves making attempts to help your friend or partner feel better when they are stressed out. You might listen sympathetically, give them advice about how to deal with their problems or try to make them laugh with a joke or funny story. If the joke is a hit, you might tell a similar one next time.
But what if management's best efforts are actually making the employees feel worse? What if the joke is upsetting rather than uplifting? Kit Double's research highlights that we have a blind spot for understanding when our efforts to help go wrong. That blind spot is the people who generally put on a happy face (like the super chipper barista).
Many jobs require service with a smile as a must-have for good performance. Organizational psychologists call this emotional labor. Working hard to keep that smile and warm tone of voice in place can be emotionally draining and increase your risk of burnout. Double's research highlights another risk factor of emotional labor--when you are laboring to show your best positive emotions, other people have no way of knowing if they are helping you. In fact, if you generally force a smile, people might think they are helping you feel better even if they make you feel worse.
Understanding this blind spot is a key insight for knowing why the best intentions of partners, friends, and supervisors can fail at helping someone feel better. The next time you’re trying to decide if you helped someone feel better, remember that some people can feel happy even without your help.
Carolyn MacCann, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Sydney.