It's a Question of Questions
Questions of Questionable Intent
When interacting with other people, eventually, we will be asked a question or feel that we need to ask someone else a question. How we frame a question is very important to getting the actual information that we want and how someone frames a question to us may force us into answers that don’t really tell the other person about our real thoughts or desires but may give them an opportunity to take advantage of us in some way.
The media and politics are good places to observe the strategy that goes into asking questions, some of these people or institutions can take the strategy of asking a question to degrees that are so dramatically absurd that it gives us a clear insight into what sort of manipulation they are attempting.
For example, a while back I received a phone call from a lobbying group that is well known across the United States for its huge membership and the enormous amount of money that it has to support or oppose political campaigns. The person on the phone said that they were taking a one question political poll and wondered if I would be willing to listen to a short tape about something going on in the news and then get and answer the question. I had the time so I said sure and they played me the tape. The tape was of course filled with political doublespeak that gave me very little information about what was really going on in the given situation. What I was able to glean from the tape was that the United Nations General Assembly (that’s the part of the UN where we don’t have a veto and which also has no power to enforce its rules) was about to pass some sort of anti gun ownership legislation. This didn’t particularly concern me because before any treaties that come out of the United Nations can become the law of the land in the United States, the President and Congress have to agree to them becoming the law of the land and I knew for sure that this particular UN treaty would not make it through our congress. In any event, after the tape, a person came on the line and asked me the one question which was something like “Are you in favor of Hillary Clinton and third world dictators taking away the guns of U.S. citizens?”
I of course I answered “yes” simply because it really bothered me that they made up a question that has no basis in reality but was phrased in such a way that sanity demanded a "no" answer. The person on the other end of the phone could barely conceal the anger in his tone of voice, thanked me, and got off the phone. The anger of course meant that he really had no interest in collecting information about my opinion. Perhaps it wasn’t really the lobbying group calling but some sort of business that sells memberships in the lobbying group, or solicits donations to it, and gets a percentage of how much money they collect, in which case, the person had wasted a lot of time with me that could have been spent with someone who might have come up with some money. It could be that the person on the other end of the phone was ignorant of how things become the law of the land and was a true believer in the cause, which, I would have learned more about if I’d have answered the question correctly and by answering wrongly, I showed myself to be one of their invisible enemies conspiring to deprive him of his rights.
The purpose of the call might not have been money. They could have been trying to enrage me at Hillary Clinton for some reason. Of course, I know that as Secretary of State she has no say in American gun rights, not even to the point of making policy. That would be the President and whoever runs the Department of the Interior, or the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or Homeland Security or the FBI or some congressional committee or other. Since Hillary wasn’t actually running for anything at that time I’m guessing that they just brought up her name in the the hope that I’m predisposed to dislike or distrust her and that they could parlay that into me becoming gung ho for gun rights or some anti UN policy or other, but they could have saved themselves some time and money by checking the demographics of my zip code and realizing that there was a good seventy percent chance that I’d voted for her for Senate… twice.
In any event, it seems obvious to me that the phrasing of the question wasn’t about getting information from me, but, provoking me into some sort of action, which is dishonest and manipulative. The fact is, I may well have been receptive to their pitch or any pitches that they make in the future but now, I know that I can never trust them because they are manipulative.
Political organizations and professionals are capable of being much more subtle than this of course. Even the most respected pollsters might ask a question something like:
What is the most important problem facing the United States?
A: Health Care
B: The Economy
The problem here is that, health care is a major sector of the economy and the economy itself can be broken down into sub issues like, the recession, unemployment and the national debt. The fact is that the solutions to unemployment and recession increase the debt and solutions to the problem of debt can increase unemployment, the length of an economic downturn and reduce the number of people who get health care. Further, global warming is not on that list and if even half of what reputable scientists say is true, that could be considered the most important problem for the entire world and includes with it sub problems of energy crises which is a big factor in all the world’s economies.
The problem with a question like this one is that it doesn’t give you a choice of real answers that you might give but only a list of answers that the questioner is interested in and gives them ammunition in a political debate as well as fodder for political rhetoric. If everyone answers “economy” than, any issue that involves the economy gives the politician grounds for saying that “the American people have spoken”. I don’t want to give the impression that I am against polling in general. Some poles with good questions produce valuable information. Almost all of the polls that I’ve seen asking people if they plan on voting for candidate A or candidate B have turned out to be pretty darn accurate. Although, I must say that if they included candidate C and D it might convince people that something other than a two party system might be viable and valuable.
Questions like the above are not just misleading politically. People that we know, and even ourselves, manipulate with questions like this all the time. If your mate says “do you want to go to the beach or to the mountains?” Your mate is doing the same thing to you as the pollster. He or she has already decided that the beach and the mountains are where he/she wants to go and is either giving you a tie breaker or just pretending to give you a choice. You’re in trouble if you answer that you want to go to the museum or art gallery (unless there is one on the beach or near the mountains.) You may ask your own children where they want to go most, the park or the zoo. Of course, you chose those because they are cheap or free and a fifteen minute drive from home. Their real answer may be horseback riding or Disney World which is out of your financial range or would take longer to visit than you have time off from work. No one blames you for only giving the realistic options but in situations like this you don’t find out the real desires of the people you are asking and there may be an amusement park or pony ride that would fill the bill close to home.
Advertising is also filled with this sort of thing. I saw an infomercial recently in which we are presented with an aging superstar that is proclaimed to be in her forties but whom we are told looks as if she is still in her twenties. We are then asked if we want to look like we are still in our twenties too. The whole rest of the half hour is devoted to her beauty secrets. Nowhere in that half hour does anyone claim that those beauty secrets will actually make us look like we are still in our twenties. We only get two sets of facts.
1: Someone thinks this women looks like she’s still in her twenties.
2: This woman uses these beauty products.
The question, “do you want to look like you are still in your twenties?” isn’t a real question. They already know the answer. Almost everyone in their thirties or older would like to look as if they were still in their twenties. The purpose of the question isn’t to gather information; it’s just to make us think that wanting to buy these things to look younger is our own idea rather than something that they've put into our heads. Rather than making us desire something, they make us realize that we already have a desire. They don’t even promise to fulfill that desire, they hope that evoking an emotional response in proximity to their product and beautiful spokesperson will be enough to make the sale.
People in our lives also misuse questions in any number of interesting ways. One of my favorites is “Do you really want to do that?” or “Why are you doing it that way?” (With an implication that, that’s the wrong way to do it.) Well, obviously I really want to do that or I wouldn’t be doing it. The real purpose of those questions can be that the person asking doesn’t want us to do it (or do it “that way”) but doesn’t want to seem like they are telling us what to do, or, they are trying to cause us to rethink, which, may not be the worst of things. In any event, the question isn’t designed to gather information for the questioner but to cause us to stop doing something or do something the way the questioner wants us to.
That last one brings up something interesting about using questions to manipulate people. It isn’t always a bad thing. Asking people questions that make them search themselves might be a bad thing if you are hoping for an emotional response that will help you to sell them your product or point of view, but, getting them to search themselves as a part of a process of self realization, or, deeper thinking about something is actually a good thing.
In the end, I think it is important that we realize that when we are asked questions, it often has nothing to do with the questioner gathering information but has to do with trying to get us to do something or react in a certain way. The question itself, by it's phrasing, often lacks information needed to make a rational decision and boxes us into a narrow set of reactions that the questioner wants from us. I think that this gives us the occasion to ask questions of our own. If when we are asked a question we ask ourselves why the person is phrasing the question the way that they do, what their words actually say or mean or don’t say or mean, and ask ourselves what they may really want from us, or why they want a certain emotional reaction from us and if we proceed from the assumption that a question doesn't give us all the facts, we are less likely to be manipulated. Plus, the more questions that we ask of others and of ourselves, the deeper we may find ourselves thinking which, could actually have very positive effects on our lives.
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