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How Questions Influence Our Behavior

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

Questions are like loaded guns. When used correctly they will hit the mark and have the desired impact. When waved about and used flippantly, the effect can be catastrophic.

Being the class know-it-all wasn't something I was proud of, I just couldn't seem to help myself. It was almost as if every question posed by my 4th grade teacher demanded an answer from me. I would hold my hand in the air so long I would have to support it with my other hand. One day during our math lesson a question was posed that I didn't know the answer to. Apparently no one in class did because no one raised their hand. I fought the urge to raise my hand and make my best guess. It felt strange. Other people must have noticed it too because my class was all looking at me expectantly, if not with a slight annoyed surprise that the know-it-all, for once, didn't. My teacher jumped at the opportunity to teach me a lesson. "Jason, do you know the answer?" I felt hot. I shook my head and looked down. Wasn't it okay to not know? Why was everyone looking at me? See if I raise my hand again.

My teacher asked not expecting an answer, but trying to make a point. I don't know if there was any malicious intent in his actions, but maybe a misguided method of proving a point to an overly talkative ten year old. I do know that I didn't raise my hand the rest of the month and when we got to choose seats again, I moved from the front to the back row. I guess he made his point.

Looking back, I know now that I was experiencing what some scientist call the "Question-Behavior" effect. I've created my own summary of the effect below.

The Matrix

In regards to questions, there are two positions we can find ourselves in: asking or responding. For each position, there can be a positive or negative impact on our behavior (what I call 'effect'). This list is far from conclusive and it is not meant to be. Rather, it shows the very tangible relationship between the questions we ask and the behaviors we influence, and the questions we get asked and the actions we take. As part of the study aforementioned, a large number of gym members were sent a survey that included questions about their predicted expected gym use in the coming weeks. The study found membership attendance increased exponentially for up to six months after the survey was sent. The power questions have on human behavior has been proven to be so great that there is a debate in the marketing industry on whether or not it's ethical to utilize questions in campaigns to influence customer behavior.

Sitting in my 4th grade classroom, I wasn't privy to the true power questions had and it legitimately impacted my learning. It begs the question, what actions are truly of our own volition and which are being influenced by the power of questions?

Positive Response

The reason why questions are so powerful is because once asked, they can't be unheard. They begin to work into our minds and an effect called "cognitive dissonance" begins to occur. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is when our real self doesn't match up with our ideal self. A few months ago I was eating dinner with my little brother and found out his company offered a 401k match that he wasn't taking advantage of. I asked, "Are you saving for retirement?" And he remained silent.

Most often, our true response to a question is not what we say immediately after it is asked. It is the behavior that occurs that otherwise would not have occurred had the question never been asked.

This weekend I overheard him talking to his girlfriend about how much money was in his (new) 401k. His answer when I asked him about retirement was a simple shrug. His response came later when he began utilizing his companies matching benefit. Cognitive dissonance is like a crack on our rear windshield that we don't know about. It just takes someone asking, "Have you looked in your rearview mirror lately?" for us to see it.

Use or Abuse

As noted in the matrix, not every response will denote progress or positive momentum in our life. When the gap between our real self and our ideal self is too large, questions can overwhelm us and create a sense of stagnation instead of progress. Sitting in my 4th grade classroom, my ideal self knew the answer to every question. When confronted with a direct question that I didn't know the answer to, I became overwhelmed, then frustrated, then outright obstinate. I shut myself off to questions, henceforth shutting myself off to the opportunities for growth and development good questions provide.

Two weeks ago, the state of Oregon announced that all educators would be mandated to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue working in any public school. In the conversations I've had with educators I care about since then, I can easily pick out which questions and responses fell into the "open up" and "shut down" categories. In one particularly passionate conversation, I asked, "Are your political beliefs more important than a career you've dedicated your life to?" Overwhelmed. Frustrated. Obstinate. Later, I asked, "What can we do to make sure your students get to keep you as their teacher?" Deep breathe. A pause. Progress.

There are real, tangible consequences to the questions we ask and the responses we give. It would be impossible to check our intentions before verbalizing every single question we ask. But, we now know that our questions are powerful. And with great power...

This was a brief summation of the power of our responses. Next time, we'll cover how to ask the right questions and ensure our intentions are in the right place. For more on questions, leadership, or to work with me, feel free to visit my site.

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