The power of questions

2010

Why is it that once we become adults, we no longer pepper the world with questions? Does sixteen plus years of education, rob us of our curiosity? Questions are a powerful tool for making sense of the world. They increase our understanding and access to ideas that can help us solve thorny problems and avoid costly mistakes. They also can expose faulty reasoning, a lack of expertise, and even fraud.

When we don't ask questions, we remain wrapped in our personal assumptions about how the world works and what people are doing and thinking. The result is that we can make bad decisions and people can take advantage of us.

Looking at the credit crisis of 2008 it is interesting to ask whether it would have occurred if regulators, bankers, legislators and even investors had asked more questions about how subprime mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps worked.

Similarly, what if the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had started asking questions when it received tips that Madoff might be engaged in fraudulent trading practices because based on market conditions his returns were highly implausible?

Given the power of questions, why is there such reluctance to ask them? The reasons lie in people's fears and insecurities. Here are typical rationalizations people use to justify not asking questions:

1) I'm the only one who doesn't understand what is being said.
No one wants to appear stupid in front of others. The result is that even though people don't understand what someone is saying, most remain silent because they think that everyone else understands.

It takes courage to break this conspiracy of silence and be the person who publicly proclaims by asking a question that they don't understand what someone has said. Most people instead opt to appear all-knowing despite the fact that they too are in the dark.

This fear helped fuel the credit crisis. Many regulators and central bankers didn't fully understand the wave of innovative financial products that flooded the market in the years preceding 2008. Rather than asking questions and revealing their ignorance, they looked the other way.

Interestingly, when people do step forward and ask questions, they discover that lots of other people are equally confused. Often their questions unleash a torrent of questions from others. In some cases they even acquire an informal leadership status as the person who dares to ask.

2) This person is an expert and I am just a mere mortal.
Psychologists have found that people frequently accept the opinions of someone labeled as an expert with no questions asked. This deference becomes even stronger when an expert uses complex language and lots of jargon. People attribute their lack of understanding in such instances to the fact that the expert is brilliant and therefore, unable to use ordinary language.

This deference is unfounded. Research shows that most experts parading across television and computer screens are no better at making predictions than the average person. Moreover, many get their facts wrong.

Questions are a great tool for revealing the depth of an expert's knowledge and whether their comments make sense. If a person is a genuine expert, they can break their subject down into terms anyone can understand and they delight in doing this. Einstein demonstrated this with his use of streetcars and speeding trains to make his concepts accessible to the average person.

3) If I ask a question, I may end up looking badly.
Questions sometimes elicit hostile reactions. Instead of honestly and openly answering the question, the speaker subtly attacks or even ridicules the person asking the question. In some cases they put the questioner on the spot by asking them a question.

Such intimidating and evasive responses are red flags. They signal that it's time to ask more questions because the speaker may have something to hide or doesn't want their statements closely scrutinized.

4) I better not ask questions because I might find out that this is too good to be true.
People tend to abdicate their question-asking faculties when something sounds too good to be true. They don't want to have reality interfere with their pipe dreams or to be morally challenged by learning that something is of dubious legitimacy.

Many European investors in Madoff's funds have revealed that they thought that he was engaged in illegal trading but believed that these activities wouldn't directly affect their investments. Thus, they remained silent.

When something sounds too good to be true, questions are more important than ever because usually it isn't true and questions can protect you. As Madoff's investors discovered, questions might have saved them a lot of financial pain.

Having the courage to ask tough questions is essential to making good decisions and solving complex problems. Every day we receive torrents of information via the internet and media. Questions are a powerful tool for determining what is valid versus what is just vacuous dribble. Moreover, well-placed questions can help us distinguish between those who are truly informed and those, who despite their self-assured and authoritative manner, are information imposters.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.