Say you’re at a professional networking event and you strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before. They tell you a funny, engaging story about a recent trip. It’s a pretty good story, so you ask about details and specifics. After the story is over, you exchange minor pleasantries and part ways. Who made the better first impression: The person who told a funny story or the person who asked a lot of questions?
New research from a team of Harvard psychological scientists suggests that asking more questions—and in particular, asking more follow-up questions—increases people’s positive impressions.
“Whereas prior data demonstrate that people tend to talk about themselves, our results suggest this may not be an optimal strategy,” writes lead author Karen Huang and colleagues. “Instead, across several studies, we find a positive relationship between question-asking and liking.”
Previous research, such as APS Fellow Arthur Aron’s classic study on 36 questions, typically relies on participants asking a series of predetermined questions from a list. Huang and colleagues wanted to find out what would happen when people were prompted to ask questions in a more open-ended way.
Previous research on question-asking has shown that, especially when meeting someone new, people tend to talk to about themselves – a lot. In a situation like a job interview, applicants try to highlight their strengths by talking about them. However, as Huang and colleagues’ recent study showed, talking about yourself may not actually be the most effective strategy for selling yourself.
“The tendency to focus on the self when trying to impress others is misguided, as verbal behaviors that focus on the self, such as redirecting the topic of conversation to oneself, bragging, boasting, or dominating the conversation, tend to decrease liking,” the researchers write. “In contrast, verbal behaviors that focus on the other person, such as mirroring the other person’s mannerisms, affirming the other’s statements, or coaxing information from the other person, have been shown to increase liking.”
In a 2015 study published in Psychological Science, Duke University researchers Korrina Duffy and Tanya Chartrand found that extraverts were more likable than more introverted people not because they talked more, but because they were better at mimicking other people’s body language.
In the first study, a group of 430 participants came to the lab for a “Chat Study.” Participants sat in cubicles with computers where they interacted with another participant via an instant messaging chat application. One person in each two-person conversation was randomly assigned to a many-question condition, while their partner was assigned to the few-question condition. Before starting the conversation, participants in the many-question condition were told they would need to ask their partner “at least nine questions.” Those in the few-question condition were instructed to ask “at most four questions.”
Neither partner was aware that the other person received different instructions for the conversation. After chatting for 15 minutes, both participants answered several questions gauging how much they liked their conversation partner and the degree to which they thought their partner liked them.
Participants’ ratings of each other showed that those who were told to ask a lot of questions came across as more responsive, and therefore more likable, to their conversation partners compared with those who were told to ask few questions.
However, a second study suggests that the link between questions and likability may not extend to people observing the conversation from the outside.
Another group of participants read transcripts of around 170 conversations from the study, and were then asked to rate how much they liked each one of the partners. These third-party observers actually liked the people who asked fewer questions better compared with people who asked more questions.
“In other words, when you are participating in a conversation, you like people who ask more questions. But when you are observing a conversation, you like people who answer more questions,” the researchers explain. “These results suggest that people like question-askers when the questions are directed toward them personally. This further supports the mechanism of responsiveness—we like people who seem responsive to us personally (not to other people in general).”
To find out whether some types of questions aided likability more than others, the research team analyzed the chat conversations using a natural language processing algorithm (ChatPlat).
The results of this analysis showed that “follow-up questions are particularly likely to increase liking because they require responsiveness from the question-asker, and signal responsiveness to the question asker’s partner.”
The researchers caution that asking too many questions could backfire, and asking the wrong kind of question, rude or too repetitive, could also hurt likability.
“Although most people do not anticipate the benefits of question-asking and do not ask enough questions, people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask,” Huang and colleagues conclude.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377. doi: 10.1177/0146167297234003
Duffy, K. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (2015). The extravert advantage: How and when extraverts build rapport with other people. Psychological Science, 26(11), 1795-1802. doi: 10.1177/0956797615600890
Huang, K., Yeomans, M., Brooks, A. W., Minson, J., & Gino, F. (2017). It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000097