Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Will you read this post?

September 5th, 2011

Asking QuestionsAnd if you do, will you act on it?

Just by asking you that, I’ve increased the likelihood that you will. And it’s not long-distance hypnotism, I promise.

I’ve written before about how the phrasing of a question alters its effects. As the following research will show, just asking a question can affect the behaviour of the person being asked.

You only need to ask. In an early experiment, researchers asked individuals whether they were going to vote in an upcoming election (and they all said they were). Compared to people not asked, they were much more likely to actually vote. Asking people whether they were likely to buy a new car or computer in coming months led to more of them making such a purchase.

How you ask makes a difference. researchers asked students about their likely consumption of fatty foods in the following week. However, some were asked whether they were likely to eat fatty foods, some were asked whether they were likely not to eat fatty foods, and some were asked whether they were likely to avoid fatty foods. Then they were offered a choice of taste tests: chocolate chip cookies or rice cakes.

Compared to students not asked, the students who were asked about future fatty food consumption were more likely to choose to taste the rice cakes. But those students asked whether they were likely to avoid fatty foods were much more likely to choose the rice cakes.

Ask QuestionsEven a hypothetical question has an effect. One study found that asking a question in the format, “If you learned [a certain fact], would it affect your actions?” had as much effect on people’s behaviours as if the “fact” had been presented as true.

It works for opinions, too. Consumers asked about their satisfaction with their financial services company (most of whom were satisfied) were more likely to buy new services and less likely to leave the company than consumers not asked. The effect of asking the question lasted for more than eight months!

Unfortunately, it works for anything. Students asked whether they were likely to exercise during the next two months were indeed more likely to exercise than students who hadn’t been asked. However, students asked whether they were likely to use illegal drugs during the next two months were also more likely to use drugs than students who hadn’t been asked (regardless of what they said in their answers).

When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the questions weren’t creating new exercisers or new drug users; they were increasing the number of times that students who already did these behaviours were likely to do them again.

There are several theories about why these reactions happen. One is that it brings the subject of the question to the top of the responder’s mind, making it more likely to come up in the future. Another is our urge to be consistent with something we have previously stated about ourselves (something I’ve written about before).

Ask a question, change the worldThere are dozens more of these studies, but you can see the applications. If you want people to eat more carrots, ask them how likely they are to eat carrots. If you don’t want your teenagers to use drugs, don’t ask them if they’re likely to use drugs, although you might try asking if they’re going to stay away from drugs.

So, are you going to go out there and change the world today?

And aren’t you glad I didn’t ask whether you were likely to wear a clown suit to work? I only use my power for good.

1 comment on 'Will you read this post?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Will you read this post?'.

  1. Rob

    6 Sep 11 at 7:06 am

    Please ask me if I’m likely to drop 20 lbs.

    On a distantly related topic: questions are my favorite thing, but the current trend, even in reputable newspapers, toward headlines in the form of questions drives me crazy. Facts on the front page, questions on the opinion page, thank you very much.


Leave a Comment