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Medical Xpress: Questions and Deception: How To Ask Better Questions and Elicit the Truth

From Medical Xpress: To make some of life’s most important decisions, it often helps to ask sensitive questions–those touching on potentially sensitive issues such as finances or personal history. For instance, when deciding to take a promotion, it would help to ask peers what the job entails (or pays), and when deciding whether to move to a certain neighborhood, it would be helpful to know what people living in that neighborhood pay in rent. But most people avoid asking questions that seem rude or intrusive, for fear of offending others. Research by Einav Hart, assistant professor of management at George Mason University School of Business, shows just how far this reluctance goes. Her 2020 paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (co-authored with Maurice Schweitzer of Wharton and Eric VanEpps of University of Utah) found that even when offered a financial reward for asking sensitive questions (e.g., “Have you ever committed a crime?”), most people would not do it. The participants who did ask sensitive questions anticipated they would come off as rude and leave a bad impression, but their fears turned out to be overblown. The sensitivity or non-sensitivity of the questions made no difference to how the question-asker came across. Hart concludes, “People often overestimate the costs of asking, and are too reluctant to ask sensitive questions.” But the fact that people are not always put off by sensitive questions does not guarantee that they will answer truthfully. In fact, one of the reasons sensitive questions tend not to bother us may be that we can often withhold information or lie–which is particularly helpful when the information sought has a higher likelihood of being compromising. Further research by Hart shows that the likelihood and truthfulness of answers can correspond to how the questions are phrased. Her 2022 paper in Current Opinion in Psychology (co-authored with VanEpps) integrates research on deception, conversations and impression management for insights into how this works. Hart argues that questions not only help askers gather information, but also signal information about the asker themselves: Their knowledge, assumptions, and preferences. These signals affect what answers we receive, and if we receive an answer at all. For example, leading questions, or questions that seem to imply what the “right” answer is, are often too suggestive to inspire complete honesty. If you were to ask an employee or co-worker, “You finished the work, right?” the implication that the work really should have been completed by now exerts subtle pressure that may cause them to tell you what you want to hear, rather than the truth. Read more at Medical Xpress.