TIME

Why Your Fear of Looking Stupid Is Making You Look Stupid

New research indicates that we're all scared of asking for help and looking dumb. But we shouldn't be -- people find you more competent if you come to them for advice

Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to ask someone’s advice, but were worried you would look incompetent? Well, in the words of RuPaul, “Your fear of looking stupid is making you look stupid.”

In fact, a new report released this week by researchers from Harvard Business School and Wharton School suggests that RuPaul is on to something, (though, obviously, the researchers phrased it in a slightly more delicate fashion). The research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Management Science, found that though many people are afraid to ask for advice — and risk looking incompetent — they’ve actually got it backwards. People who seek advice are likely to be thought of as more competent, at least by the people they’re asking.

The researchers came to that conclusion by conducting a series of studies. In the first, researchers tried to determine whether people are actually afraid of looking incompetent by telling participants to imagine that they needed advice from a co-worker. Some were then told that their hypothetical selves would actually seek advice and others were told they would not. Participants were then asked to rate how competent they thought their hypothetical co-worker found them. Turns out, the people who hypothetically asked for help felt that they would be viewed as less competent than those who didn’t.

Which is understandable, to an extent. Though the old adage says “there are no stupid questions,” anyone who has spent time on the snark-riddled internet knows that that’s not actually the case. Sometimes it feels wiser to shut up and muddle through, than risk looking like a complete fool.

Yet that’s where the new reasearch gets interesting. In the next study, researchers paired participants with an unseen partner that they could only communicate with over instant message. (Their partners did not actually exist; the messages sent were programmed by the researchers.) The participants were then asked to do a brain teaser, before handing the task off to their partner. Once they’d finished the task, they received a message from their “partner” that either read, “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or “I hope it went well.” Later, when asked by the researchers, people rated the partners who asked for advice as being more competent than those who had simply wished them well. What’s more, the harder the brain teaser, the more competent the advice-seeking “partners” were rated.

Even more interesting, is that when the researchers asked participants to rate their own self-confidence after completing a task, the ones who had been asked for advice felt better about themselves than the ones who had not been asked.

The researchers concluded that people’s egos are boosted when they’re consulted and asked to dole out advice, which in turn leads them to think more highly of the people who’ve just boosted their egos.

Essentially, people are so flattered to be asked for advice that their heads swell a little and they think of themselves as smart; that reflects well on the advice-seeker who is in turn believed to be smart enough to recognize their game. So take our advice: the next time you’re itching to ask for help, do it.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser