It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking
Karen Huang, Michael Yeomans, Alison Wood Brooks, Julia Minson, and Francesca Gino
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Published April 27, 2017
Conversation is a fundamental human experience that is necessary to pursue intrapersonal and interpersonal goals across myriad contexts, relationships, and modes of communication. In the current research, we isolate the role of an understudied conversational behavior: question-asking. Across 3 studies of live dyadic conversations, we identify a robust and consistent relationship between question-asking and liking: people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners.
When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation, and care. We measure responsiveness with an attitudinal measure from previous research as well as a novel behavioral measure: the number of follow-up questions one asks. In both cases, responsiveness explains the effect of question-asking on liking. In addition to analyzing live get-to-know-you conversations online, we also studied face-to-face speed-dating conversations. We trained a natural language processing algorithm as a “follow-up question detector” that we applied to our speed-dating data (and can be applied to any text data to more deeply understand question-asking dynamics). The follow-up question rate established by the algorithm showed that speed daters who ask more follow-up questions during their dates are more likely to elicit agreement for second dates from their partners, a behavioral indicator of liking. We also find that, despite the persistent and beneficial effects of asking questions, people do not anticipate that question-asking increases interpersonal liking.
Imagine this scenario: you meet a new colleague for the first time at a company party. You strike up a conversation, and the colleague starts telling you a funny story. You are interested and engaged, and you ask several questions that encourage the colleague to elaborate on the details of the story. After the story is over, you exchange pleasantries and part ways. Later you realize that your colleague didn’t ask any questions about you, and you didn’t have an opportunity to reveal much information about yourself. Who made the better impression?
Conversation is a pervasive human experience. Conversing with others is a fundamental behavior across myriad contexts, relationships, and modes of communication (e.g., written, spoken). People can choose from many ways to contribute to a conversation, including making a statement, telling a story, making a quip or joke, apologizing, giving a compliment, or saying nothing at all while a conversation partner speaks. We converse with others to learn what they know—their information, stories, preferences, ideas, thoughts, and feelings—as well as to share what we know while managing others’ perceptions of us. That is, two central goals of conversation are information exchange and impression management. In this article, we examine an understudied conversational behavior that likely influences both of these goals: question-asking.
Although question-asking is ubiquitous, we know very little about the antecedents and consequences of asking questions during interpersonal interaction. In the current research, we investigate the psychology of question-asking as a social phenomenon. We measure people’s natural rates of question-asking and explore how the propensity to ask questions influences interpersonal liking across controlled experimental settings and an observational field setting. Compared with people who ask few questions, we expect that high question askers are better liked. In particular, asking questions that follow up on the other person’s responses may cause and convey better listening, understanding, validation, and care (i.e., responsiveness). The question asker’s responsiveness, in turn, is likely to cause him or her to be better liked by the question answerer.
Question-Asking in Conversation
A conversation is a cooperative interaction in which each person acts in coordination to contribute to a successful experience of shared understanding. It is an ongoing, sequential unfolding of actions and responses, organized as speaker turns. Most conversations are characterized by the transfer of information about beliefs, thoughts, or emotions from one person to another. In the current work, we investigate the social phenomenon of asking questions that encourage the partner to elaborate on their beliefs, thoughts, and emotions.
Question-asking directs conversations by encouraging another person to answer. Though some people may ask questions to avoid disclosing information themselves, most questions function to solicit information from others. If one person asks a question, the other person’s response should abide by basic conversational maxims, such as responding with the relevant information to the question at hand. Although, some recent work suggests that people could violate these norms by dodging questions, responding with truth that is deliberately misleading (i.e., paltering), or refusing to answer altogether.
The type of question-asking we investigate—natural, conversational questions that elaborate on the question-responder’s statements— differ categorically from the questions investigated in studies on experimentally induced social closeness. This prior work has defined social closeness as the inclusion of the other in the concept of the self. In this work, participants were instructed to ask a fixed list of questions that change topic but increase in intimacy over time, and partners take turns answering all questions. For example, each partner would take turns asking and answering the question “What do you value most in a friendship?” before moving on to asking and answering the question “What is your most treasured memory?”. In these studies, questions were provided by an experimenter, and participants were not instructed or encouraged to ask follow-up questions. In contrast, in our work, we investigate the effect of question-asking on liking in natural dyadic interactions.
We focus on information-seeking questions in which the question-asker lacks some information and requests more information from the other person. People often ask information-seeking questions when meeting for the first time, and are more likely to seek information from others when they consider the information highly valuable. Because people often know very little about each other upon first meeting, individuals stand to learn a large amount of information about their conversation partners during first encounters. Importantly, though, information exchange is not the only goal of conversation. Asking questions may serve and influence other motivations like impression management.
Question-Asking and Liking
Most people have an intrinsic desire to be liked by others. Being liked by others influences interpersonal attraction, relationship development, and other important outcomes such as acceptance and
inclusion in groups.
Because the content of a conversation can significantly influence the extent to which the participants like each other afterwards, it is important to examine conversation as a process that influences
attraction and relationship development. The effect of conversational content on interpersonal liking has been demonstrated across a wide array of conversational strategies, ranging from other-focused behaviors, such as giving a compliment or acknowledging another person’s ideas, to self-focused behaviors, such as talking about oneself. However, to our best knowledge, no prior research has investigated whether and how asking questions may influence liking.
Though asking questions invites information disclosure, there are many reasons why people may not ask questions. First, people may not think to ask questions at all. Neglecting to ask questions altogether may happen because people are egocentric—focused on expressing their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with little or no interest in hearing what another person has to say. Or they may be too distracted by other aspects of the conversation (e.g., emotion expression) that they do not realize that asking a question is an option. On the other hand, some people may think to ask questions, but may purposefully forgo asking because they are unsure about which question(s) to ask or worry about asking a question that is perceived as rude, inappropriate, intrusive, or incompetent. In these cases, it may be much easier to talk about oneself instead.
Indeed, in most conversations, people predominantly share information about themselves rather than discussing other possible topics. A study of conversations in public settings such as bars and trains suggests that people spend two thirds of conversation time talking about their personal experiences. Especially when meeting someone new, people tend to use self-focused presentation strategies like self-promotion. For example, Marr and Cable (2014) found that job candidates excessively attempt to “sell” themselves to make a favorable impression in job interviews.
The tendency to focus on the self when trying to impress others is misguided, as verbal behaviors that focus on the self, such as redirecting the topic of conversation to oneself, bragging, boasting, or dominating the conversation, tend to decrease liking. In contrast, verbal behaviors that focus on the other person, such as mirroring the other person’s mannerisms, affirming the other’s statements, or coaxing information from the other person, have been shown to increase liking.
We hypothesize that asking more questions—and in particular, asking more follow-up questions—increases liking for the question asker. This hypothesis is consistent with prior research. For example, at the trait level, people who tend to draw out more information from their conversation partners (termed “openers”) are better liked by their partners in long-term relationships. And studies of doctor–patient communication suggest that patients report higher satisfaction with their visits when physicians ask more questions about the patients’ experiences. Furthermore, because most people spend the majority of their conversations sharing their own views rather than focusing on the other person, we hypothesize that people do not anticipate the effect of question-asking on liking.
Conversations are complex social interactions, fraught with decisions about what to say and how to behave. Although most adults have decades of experience conversing with others, our data suggest that people often fail to engage in behaviors that will help them make the most positive impression. Whereas prior data demonstrate that people tend to talk about themselves, our results suggest this may not be an optimal strategy. Instead, across several studies, we find a positive relationship between question-asking and liking. Furthermore, we identify an important psychological mechanism: the effect of question-asking is driven by an increase in perceived responsiveness, which leads question-recipients to like their partners more. Across our studies, we find support for this mechanism using both an attitudinal and a behavioral measure of responsiveness. In particular, we identify follow-up questions as an important behavioral indicator of responsiveness, and we find that asking a higher rate of follow-up questions reliably predicts partner liking.
By asking third-party observers to rate conversations, we tested whether question askers are liked because they are more responsive, or because question-asking is a signal of traits that are inherently likable—for example by signaling interest, empathy, or superior social skills. Instead, we found that high question-askers were not liked any more by third-party observers than were low question-askers. This result dovetails with our findings on follow-up questions, perhaps suggesting a boundary condition. Because a third-party observer is not present in the conversation by definition, none of the questions being asked can follow up on anything they have said. These results provide converging evidence that people like question-askers because they perceive question-askers as more responsive (to them personally).
In this research, we find evidence that people do not anticipate the effect of question-asking on liking. This is true when they are in the role of question-asker, question-receiver, and third-party observer. Thus, it seems that people are largely unaware that asking questions has social benefits. Indeed, third-party raters seemed to like questionresponders more, perhaps because they were interested in the information that responses provide. This result may explain why low question-asking persists in social interaction: individuals may recall that while observing conversation, they liked or found interesting high question-responders.
Last, we investigated conversations in the ecologically valid context of speed-dating, where people are motivated to make a good impression during a first encounter. We found that people who asked a higher rate of follow-up questions were asked on more second dates. Using a machine learning analysis of the question contents, we found a positive relationship between follow-up questions and liking in this context, but not between other types of questions and liking. The findings from Study 3 provide correlational evidence supporting the experimental evidence from Studies 1 and 2 that follow-up questions, as a behavioral measure of responsiveness, are particularly likely to increase liking. Furthermore, we measured question-asking across many interactions for each person, and found evidence that asking follow-up questions is a relatively stable trait over time. The results from Study 3 suggest that follow-up question-asking is a desirable trait that people may seek in potential partners.
Our work makes several fundamental theoretical contributions to an array of existing literatures. First, our work contributes to the understanding of responsiveness within the context of conversations. When Person A asks Person B more questions, particularly follow-up questions, Person B will like Person A more as a result. People want to be heard and validated by others. The question-asker, by expressing interest and engagement, serves a validating role as a valuable conversation partner—indeed, one with whom people want to interact in the future. Prior research has conceptualized responsiveness as understanding, validation, and care, and we show that an important behavioral indicator of responsiveness is asking more follow-up questions in a conversation. Follow-up questions appropriately elaborate on the content of the partner’s message, and signal that the content is worth continuing to discuss. Responsiveness has previously been conceptualized in close relationships, and we build on recent work that studies responsiveness in casual encounters and first meetings, by identifying a behavior that can signal responsiveness during conversations.
Second, our work contributes to extant research about active listening, which has been previously investigated across fields such as communications, crisis communication, and marital therapy but has been largely overlooked in social psychology. We identify and show evidence that question-asking is a critical component of active listening. Bridging the literatures of communications and social psychology, we suggest that question-asking is an important indicator of both active listening and responsiveness, and we open the pathway for future research to investigate active listening as a social psychological construct.
Third, our finding that people fail to predict the effect of question-asking on liking contributes to previous work on prediction and forecasting errors. We suspect that people may show a truncation error specific to conversational experiences: When people simulate conversations, they tend to only imagine what they would say at one time point, rather than the timing and responsiveness of dialogue as the conversation unfolds. This prediction error could additionally help to explain why people tend to talk about themselves during a conversation rather than ask many questions. At any one time point, it is easier to offer statements about the self, since that information is more easily accessible compared to responses that are contingent on the partner’s response. Thus, people fail to predict the effect of question-asking on liking when reflecting on conversation and when engaged in a conversation.
Fourth, these findings contribute to a literature about interpersonal interaction and intimacy in longer-term relationships. The process of interacting with another person affects outcomes such as attraction and intimacy in relationships Although our work only looked at first-encounters, it is likely that the effect of question-asking on responsiveness and liking extends to repeated interactions and longer term relationships. Previous work has found that social closeness increases as people reciprocally answer questions that grow increasingly more intimate. But this work has focused on full-switch questions, provided in advance by an experimenter. Our results focus on follow-up questions in natural conversation, and suggest that follow-up questions, as an indicator of responsiveness, may be an important factor for attraction and intimacy in longer term relationships.
Finally, even though question-asking seems to be a relatively stable trait across individuals, people can learn to ask more questions. In Studies 1 and 2, we manipulated question-asking, showing that it is remarkably easy to induce people to ask more questions. This suggests that question-asking is a skill that can be learned. For example, if a person consistently receives positive feedback (such as liking from the other person, or more second dates) for asking more questions during a conversation, she could learn to associate question-asking with positive outcomes, and change her conversational behavior. Over time, given a choice to talk about oneself or ask more questions in a conversation, a person could tend to choose the latter. This is consistent with work showing that active listening skills can be improved with training.
People spend most of their time during conversations talking about their own viewpoints and tend to self-promote when meeting people for the first time. In contrast, high question-askers—those
that probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked. Although most people do not anticipate the benefits of question-asking and do not ask enough questions, people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask.