Saturday, August 30, 2014

I'd Like To Ask The Audience

Have you ever been in a situation where you're stuck on... something, doesn't matter what... to the point where you needed advice? Of course you have. We all have. We're human. We don't know everything. That's the credo around here, remember?

Let me reposition the question. Have you refrained from asking for that advice for fear of how stupid you'd look while asking? Again, I'm sure you have. I have. It's hard to swallow your pride and admit ignorance sometimes. You may also have gotten some general advice saying there's no such thing as a stupid question.

According to a new study [PDF] by Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Maurice Schweitzer of Wharton, you would do well to listen to that advice. (Yay, I don't have to warn you about some $30 paywall for once!) You are, according to the study, perceived as looking smarter, not dumber. This is something that the researchers noticed had not been covered very much: not the advice given but the act of asking itself.

The study was actually a set of five studies. The first was to prove the hypothesis in the first place, that people are actually afraid of looking dumb. People were asked to imagine a situation at work where they needed to ask help from a coworker, and asked to predict how they'd be looked at by doing so. Proving the hypothesis, respondents thought they'd look dumber.

The second study went about testing that, and there are a couple repetitions here in various permutations, but they all involve the basic setup of people being asked to 'partner' with what they thought was another subject but in fact was a computer controlled by the researchers. They would do brain teasers of various types depending on the specific test, and then their 'partner' would go, but before they did, the subject would either be asked, or not asked, for advice. Then, after the computer, well, gave the performance it was predetermined it would give, the subject would be asked to rate how intelligent they thought their 'partner' was.

The third study measured the difficulty of the task. It worked like Study 2, but in one permutation, subjects were asked to do simple match problems, like adding together 4-digit numbers. In another, they were given a harder task in which they were given a 3x3 grid of decimal numbers and asked to pick out which two of those nine numbers added up to 10. The fourth study was the same thing- using just the add-up-to-10 grid- but the 'partner' was allowed to ask either the subject or 'another participant in the lab'.

The fifth study was done online. After passing some reading and comprehension checks, subjects were asked some biographical information about themselves- where they lived and their competence level on a set of subjects. Then they were told someone else in an imaginary four-person group was asked to do a brain teaser that did not in fact exist. They were either told whether or not the 'partner' had asked them for advice or not- leaving ambiguous whether they'd asked someone else- and if they had, they were either asked about their best subject or their worst.

There are three basic things to note here:

1) People who ask about something difficult are seen as smarter than those who ask about something easy. Or rather, asking about something easy doesn't make you look dumber- you stay about neutral- but you look smarter when asking about something hard.
2) You look smarter to someone when you ask them personally for advice, though asking someone else doesn't actively hurt you. What's happening here is a variation on the concept- and this has been studied as well- that whatever you say about other people. that's how other people look at you. So when you ask someone for advice, what you're effectively saying is that you think they're smart enough to be able to supply that advice, and in return, you get thought of as smart enough to know to come to little old them.
3) You look smarter when you ask an expert than when you ask a non-expert. That's only natural; if you're going to get advice, ask someone who knows what they're doing. You are in fact looked at as dumber if you ask a non-expert, the only part of the study where this is the case, even by the person you're asking ('why would they ask me, I'm clueless'). So if you're going to ask someone, ask someone who knows what they're talking about.

Asking repeatedly was not tested for, so the annoyance factor is left on the table. But go ahead and ask if you don't know something. Just make sure you ask someone who might actually know the answer.

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