Monday, November 21, 2011

Hypothetical Questions: Are they Innocent?

Hypothetical questions are everywhere. "Would you vote for so-and-so if they hired illegal immigrants, or raised taxes?" For the most part, we rarely give these questions much thought. But are they as innocent as they seem?

Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, believes that something considered innocent may very well have a big impact on an individual.

He and his colleagues say that hypothetical questions can sway opinion and even affect behavior.

In 2001, Shiv and his colleague Gavan Fitzsimons performed an experiment which looked at voting behavior. It was found that those types of questions used in push polls decreased the percentage of participants voting for the targeting candidate.

"For example, in one experiment, the researchers gave a pretrial jury selection questionnaire to a group of actual prospective jurors. They asked some of them, hypothetically, how finding out that the defendant was a gang member would affect their impartiality in the trial. Even though the questionnaire explicitly told participants not to use the questions to draw conclusions about the case, participants who saw this question ended up giving more guilty verdicts and meting out harsher sentences, at least on paper, than did participants who hadn't been exposed to the hypothetical."

It seems like we are easily affected by innocuous-looking tactics.

Citation: "Nonconscious and contaminative effects of hypothetical questions on subsequent decision making," G.J. Fitzsimons and B. Shiv, Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 224–238, 2001.

If you have an interest in learning how you can use psychological science to your advantage in your case, please contact David A. Wenner, 602.224.0005 or

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