Hypothetically Speaking

Study: how you ask influences the answer
November 30, 2011


Infection detection

In the realm of public-opinion research, the "what-if" question—one that asks a survey respondent to express an opinion about a hypothetical scenario—is an oft-used device. But what if those questions were subtly leading respondents toward a particular opinion?

According to researchers at the Fuqua School of Business, that's not a hypothetical.

In a recent study, marketing experts at several universities designed surveys full of hypothetical scenarios, some positive and some negative, to see if the scenarios had any lingering effect on people's opinions. In one experiment, potential jurors for a simulated court case were asked a series of hypothetical questions that supposed the defendant was a gang member. Those jurors proved more likely to issue a guilty verdict and recommend harsher sentences than jurors who were not asked the hypothetical questions.

"Hypothetical questions are essentially wolves in sheep's clothing," says Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Fuqua, who collaborated on the study with researchers at the University of Alberta, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University. "Seemingly innocuous questions can make positive knowledge accessible while negative questions can make negative knowledge accessible. In other words, being asked hypothetical questions that are consistent with our existing knowledge or our preconceived notions has a biasing effect on us—without our knowledge and without our consent." But you already knew that, didn't you?