Unveiling the Dynamics of Questions: Insights and Applications

Questions hold a central position in the communication process. While their traditional role is seen as information-gathering, they also play a crucial part in revealing information and guiding answers. The phrasing and type of questions we ask can shape the responses we receive, influencing perceptions, introducing biases, and determining the reliability of the information obtained. By recognizing the power of questions and employing them strategically, we can enhance our ability to communicate effectively and gain valuable insights in various domains of life.

Josh Ether

2/5/20213 min read

Let's delve deeper into the realm of questions and explore their multifaceted nature. To understand the true impact of questions, we can turn to linguistic experts who have dedicated significant time to their study. These experts have identified several functions of questions in conversations. Questions structure our interactions by directing our focus toward essential topics. They also propel narratives forward by inquiring about subsequent events. Moreover, questions can serve as pauses to ensure mutual understanding, seeking clarification by asking, "Do you know what I mean by that?" or "How do you know who was calling?"

Traditionally, questions have been regarded as instruments to elicit information. However, I propose that questions possess an additional role. They not only extract information but also shape our answers and convey information themselves. This phenomenon becomes evident when we consider leading questions, as demonstrated by the influential work of Loftus. In her experiments, participants watched videos of car accidents and were subsequently asked how fast the cars were traveling. What proved fascinating was that the phrasing of the question influenced participants' responses. For instance, when asked, "How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" participants estimated higher speeds compared to questions like "How fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?" These variations in wording caused significant differences in participants' estimations, with responses ranging from approximately 41 miles per hour to 32 miles per hour. These findings highlight that the questions we ask can shape the answers we receive, particularly when dealing with inquiries that have ambiguous or uncertain answers.

Similar effects can be observed in everyday situations. Consider the following examples: "Do you get headaches frequently, and if so, how often?" versus "Do you get headaches occasionally, and if so, how often?" Despite the slight distinction, these questions yield remarkably different responses. The term "frequently" prompts answers indicating experiencing headaches more than twice a week, while "occasionally" elicits responses indicating less than once a week. Thus, the phrasing of questions can significantly influence the information we obtain.

These findings have implications for critical scenarios such as legal proceedings. In courtrooms, lawyers are often restricted in the types of questions they can ask potential jurors. However, the way questions are posed can still have a powerful impact. For instance, when a lawyer asks, "Could you be impartial if you knew the defendant was a member of a gang?" even if the defendant's affiliation with a gang is speculative, the question itself plants the idea in jurors' minds. Similarly, asking, "When did you stop taking the money?" implies guilt before innocence. Thus, questions can shape perceptions and introduce biases that are challenging to dispel.

Loftus conducted another intriguing study involving a video of a car passing by on a country road. A week later, participants were asked if they saw a barn in the video, despite there being no barn present. However, the key factor was how the question had been phrased earlier. Some participants were asked, "How fast was the white sports car going while traveling along the country road?" while others were asked, "How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while driving along the country road?" Astonishingly, participants who had been asked the question including the mention of a barn reported seeing a barn about 17% of the time, while those who were never asked about a barn reported seeing one less than 3% of the time. This illustrates that questions can generate fabricated responses, revealing that questions not only gather information but also disclose information and guide answers.

Understanding the profound impact of questions on communication, I conducted a series of studies exploring how different types of questions can elicit distinct information. In one experiment, participants were informed that they were selling a used iPod with frequent crashes. They interacted with potential buyers, who asked one of three questions: a general question ("What can you tell me about it?"), a positive assumption question ("It doesn't have any problems, does it?"), or a negative assumption question ("What problems does it have?"). The results were striking. Participants perceived the buyers as more knowledgeable and assertive when they asked the negative assumption question, while the general question elicited the lowest perceptions of knowledge and assertiveness. Importantly, the type of question influenced the information provided by the sellers. Negative assumption and positive assumption questions yielded more reliable and detailed information about the iPod's crashes, while the general question led to unrelated and less informative responses. Independent raters also judged the responses to be more honest when participants were asked assumption-based questions.

These findings suggest that when we ask questions, we should listen attentively to the answers and seek disconfirming information. By challenging our assumptions and presuming the presence of problems or challenges, we are more likely to obtain accurate and truthful responses. For instance, instead of assuming medication compliance by asking, "You haven't missed any medications, have you?" it would be more effective to ask, "What medications have you missed?" Similarly, when discussing deadlines, rather than assuming everything is on track by saying, "We're right on track, aren't we?" it is more fruitful to ask, "What challenges are you facing in meeting this deadline?" By adopting this approach, we encourage open communication and facilitate the gathering of reliable information.