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Interpreting a Helping Hand

July 14, 2013

By Taraneh Mojaverian and Heejung Kim (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Rare is the person who does not sometimes need assistance from close others, such as friends, family, and peers, when dealing with a problem or predicament. A challenging work task, difficulty in learning a new concept, or a continuing conflict with an associate–these are a few examples of situations when people turn to others for their guidance or support. But for any given issue, there are many ways to seek and receive help, and our research examines the factors that may influence how and why people respond to different types of help from others, focusing on culture: does one’s cultural background effect the outcomes of receiving help?

Previous research has found that for people from East Asian and Asian American cultural backgrounds tend to avoid asking close others for help with problems out of a concern for disrupting relationships and burdening others with personal issues (Kim, Sherman, & Taylor, 2008). In these cultures, actively seeking help from others is associated with negative outcomes, and may even cause additional stress. By contrast, in cultures such as the United States, among those from Western European ancestry, seeking help from others is associated with more positive benefits (Taylor, Welch, Kim, & Sherman, 2007).

Our research, recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Mojaverian & Kim, 2013), addresses this in a new manner, looking at how the way in which support is received may have a different effect on help outcomes across cultures. We examined two types of help, comparing situations in which help is given after the recipient asks for it directly (solicited social support), and situations in which help is given without any previous prompting from the recipient (unsolicited social support). For East Asians and Asian Americans, receiving help without previously asking for it may be a way of feeling supported by others that does not activate relationship concerns as the help is freely given, leading to more positive outcomes. For European Americans, the outcomes of these types of support may not be particularly differentiated, as relationship concerns are not as central of an issue.

We tested this hypothesis using two studies, both with an interaction in a laboratory setting and using hypothetical scenarios. In the first study, Asian American and European American participants came into the lab, where they were asked to work on a difficult stressful task and were given the opportunity either to ask for help from a fellow participant (who was in fact a research assistant trained to be knowledgeable on the task), or they received unsolicited help from the fellow participant on the task. After the task, we asked participants to report on their current feelings of self-esteem and how stressful the task was in order to examine the psychological outcomes of these types of support. In a second study, participants responded to a series of hypothetical scenarios in which they experienced a stressful event and then received either solicited or unsolicited help from a friend or co-worker. In both studies, Asian American participants reported better outcomes from unsolicited support situations than from solicited support situations, viewing the task as less stressful (in Study 1), feeling more positive emotions (in Study 2), and experiencing greater feelings of self-worth (in both studies).  For European Americans, there were no significant differences between the types of support in helping outcomes.

Our research suggests culture may influence what it means to receive help from others. By examining the method of receiving help within the context of cultural background, the present research provides additional insight into how culture shapes our social interactions. Receiving help from close others does have clear benefits cross-culturally, but that the process of effective support may look different in different cultures. The success of received support depends on the conditions under which the support was given, and the impact of those conditions depends on cultural background. Whether requesting aid from a friend or receiving assistance without asking for help, benefit derived from this help may depend on what is viewed as normative in one’s culture.

Author Information


Taraneh Mojaverian is a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests involve culture and social support seeking in both clinical and non-clinical settings, as well as cultural differences in the motivational outcomes of help receipt.


KimHeejung Kim is a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on cultural differences in the perception and the effect of self-expression, the use of social support, and the role of cultural and genetic factors in shaping psychological processes.


Mojaverian, T. & Kim, H. S. (2013). Interpreting a helping hand: Cultural variation in the effectiveness of solicited and unsolicited social support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 88-99.

Kim, H. S., Sherman, D. K., & Taylor, S. E. (2008). Culture and social support. American Psychologist, 63, 518-526.

Taylor, S. E., Welch, W. T., Kim, H. S, & Sherman, D. K. (2007). Cultural differences in the impacts of social support on psychological and biological stress responses. Psychological Science, 18, 831-837.

Image Credit:  “Mother giving hand to a child” courtesy of “David Castillo Dominici” – view portfolio (ID: 100109915) /

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