Hypothetical Questions May Lead to Bias

Baba Shiv

Baba Shiv, Stanford Graduate School of Business profession, showed that hypothetical questions can sway opinion and affect behavior through innuendo and implied rumor.

One example is a political “push poll” during the 2000 South Carolina Republican Primary Elections, which asked voters whether they’d vote for John McCain if they learned that he had fathered an illegitimate child.

Shiv and Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor Gavan Fitzsimons  conducted experimental inquiries of voter attitudes and behavior in 2001, and found that hypothetical questions increase information “accessibility” because the implied criticism is memorable and may align with existing stereotypes, becomes “top-of-mind,” and can direct behavioral choices.

Gavan Fitzsimons

The researchers found that participants simply focus on the hypothetical content, and don’t evaluate its credibility, even when reminded that the situation is hypothetical.

This effect was seen in one experiment where researchers gave a pretrial jury selection questionnaire to a group of actual prospective jurors.

The potential jurors were told not to use the questions to draw conclusions about the case, then some of the prospective jurors were asked how their decision would be affected by learning that the defendant was a gang member.

Participants who received the hypothetical question gave more hypothetical guilty verdicts and harsher sentences than those who received no suggestive questions.

Shiv cautions against posing hypothetical questions in situations where they are frequently used: Jury selection, political polls, marketing focus groups, job interviews.

Despite research findings (by many including Wiesner & Cronshaw’s classic 1988 article in Journal of Applied Psychology) that hypothetical questions about future behavior in work situations do not predict job performance as effectively as actual past job performance, this interview tactic is still used by some employers.

Astute job candidates can respond to hypothetical questions by citing actual past behavior as a “proof-point” of expected job performance, and may explore the interviewer’s underlying concerns in posing hypothetical questions.

-*What impact have you observed for hypothetical questions posed in the workplace?

Related Posts on Decision-Making and Bias:

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Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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