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Good deals are not just a result of asking questions but of asking them the right way, study suggests

July 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

The apartment looks great, and before signing the lease the future renter asks the building manager, "What can you tell me about the neighbors?" "Oh, they are very friendly," comes the reply.  As it turns out, "very friendly" means wild parties, undisciplined children, and a barking dog, all of which leads the miserable renter to wonder what he did wrong. After all, he did ask about the neighbors.
Yes, but only a general way, which, according to new research, is the worst way to ask questions to uncover potential drawbacks of a deal. How one asks is as important, if not more so, than the fact of asking, finds a study to be presented at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management (San Antonio, Aug. 14-16).
"Everybody tells you questions are important, ask questions; but really bright people can ask really bad questions," comments Julia Alexandra Minson of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who carried out the research with Wharton colleague Maurice Schweitzer and Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington.
The researchers tested three distinct ways of asking about a good or service -- 1) the Negative Assumption way that presupposes a problem; 2) the Positive Assumption way that raises the possibility of a problem but presupposes there is none; and 3) the General way that asks broadly about the good or service.
The results were strikingly different.
In the words of the study, "Participants were most forthcoming and honest in response to a Negative Assumption question, and least forthcoming in response to a General question. Consistent with this finding, observers rated the same deceptive response as less blameworthy when the respondent asked a General question than when the respondent asked a Positive Assumption or Negative Assumption question."
In conclusion, the study offers this advice: "Individuals seeking to uncover unfavorable information should ask questions that directly inquire about problems. Questioners should phrase queries in a way that assumes the existence of a problem (e.g., 'What mechanical problems does this car have?') Negotiators, interviewers, and lenders can all benefit from this insight."
In one experiment, the researchers recruited 208 university students who were asked to negotiate the sale of a used iPod via computer. The students were informed that the iPod was two years old and in good physical and working conduction but that on two occasions it had "frozen," inexplicably losing all stored music. Although it had been possible to restore the music from the seller's computer, the cause of the freezes and the possibility of future freezes were unknown.
The students then received a message from a supposed potential buyer that concluded with one of three questions about the iPod: 1) a General question ("What can you tell me about it?"); 2) a Positive Assumption question ("There aren't any problems with it, right?"); or 3) a Negative Assumption question ("What problems have you had with it?").
The responses of the sellers were dramatically different, depending on the way the questions were posed. In response to the Negative Assumption question, 87% of the sellers alerted the supposed buyer to the problems with the iPod, compared to only 59% of those responding to the Positive Assumption question and a mere 10% of those responding to the General question.
In a second experiment, the researchers elicited judgments from a different group of 174 participants who were asked to assess a response by a seller to queries of potential buyers. Participants were provided the same background information as in the first experiment; were advised that a potential buyer had posed a question, which was either the General, Positive Assumption, or Negative Assumption format; and were informed that the seller e-mailed the following misleading response to all queries: "The iPod is in great condition. I've had it in a protective case so that it looks brand new. Are you interested in it?" 
Participants were asked to rate the seller's ethics and also to judge who would be responsible if the buyer bought the iPod with incomplete information about its history. On a scale of 1 to 5, participants rated the ethics of sellers who received the General question as 3.8, compared to an average rating of 2.89 for those who responded to the Positive Assumption question and 2.57 (in other words, least ethical) for those who responded to the Negative Assumption question, all differences being statistically significant.
On the issue of blame, the results were equally sharp. On a scale of 1 (least responsible) to 7 (most responsible), sellers responding to a General question were rated at 4; those responding to a Positive Assumption question were rated 4.6 and those responding to a Negative Assumption question were rated 5.2.
In explanation, the study puts it this way: "Offering a misleading response to a General question may not require a lie of commission. Similarly, in the case of a Positive Assumption question, the respondent may merely confirm the implied assumption in order to conceal unfavorable information. In contrast, providing a misleading response to a Negative Assumption question requires both a lie of commission and overcoming acquiescence. As a result, lies in response to Negative Assumption questions are judged as more dishonest, more blameworthy, and less ethical."
Adds Dr. Minson: "Our results suggest that, in cases that end up before a judge or arbitrator, Negative Assumption questions are most likely to stand a misled buyer in good stead. In any event, if timidity is what prevents people from posing such questions, our results suggest there is no reason for it. We asked sellers whether they were unhappy with buyers, and found that asking Negative Assumption questions did not affect ratings of politeness or abrasiveness."

The study, entitled "Ask (the right way) and you shall receive," will be as among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, to be held in San Antonio from August 14th to 16th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
The Globe & Mail. Don't shy away from the tough questions. (Wednesday, July 27, 2011).

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