Julia Minson, Eric VanEpps, Jeremy Yip, and Maurice Schweitzer have published a new paper titled, "Eliciting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: The effect of question phrasing on deception." They report their research regarding the impact that question phrasing has on a counterparty's willingness to reveal critical information. They examine this issue in the context of negotiations and job interviews.
Minson and her colleagues contrast three types of inquiries: positive assumption questions (presume that no problem exists), negative assumption questions (assume a problem exists), and general assumption questsions (no mention of a problem). The authors provide an example of positive vs. negative inquiries. Positive: “This car doesn’t have any problems, right?” Negative: “What is wrong with this car that you are trying to sell me?”
The authors conduct a series of studies to examine the impact that different types of questions have on a counterparty's behavior. They find that negative questions elicit the revelation of more critical information about problems. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Van Epps concludes, "“People are much more likely to disclose problems when you presume [there is a] problem.”
These scholars examine questions in the context of job interviews and negotiations, but I think an even more important application might be for leaders assessing risk in their organizations. We know that bad news often does not rise to the top in organizations. How can leaders uncover hidden risks before small problems have become major crises? This study suggests that leaders should ask probing questions that presume a problem exists, rather than inquiring in ways that assume things are going smoothly.