Ellen Langer

Ask a Better Question to Get a Better Answer ·


Outside of Jeopardy and the game “20 Questions”, we typically worry about answers more than questions. Yet, questions direct our information search and all but determine the answer. “Do you want chocolate or vanilla?” The question suggests you can’t find a way to have them both. “What time should we leave for the party?” suggests that we’re necessarily going and all that needs to be determined is the time.

The questions that may be most important to our well being, however, have to do with what we think of ourselves and our intimate others. “How good (smart, successful, generous) am I?” is not the same question as “How bad (stupid, unsuccessful, small) am I?” The question initiates a search for evidence. Seek and ye shall find. In the former case we’ll look for and find evidence of our positive selves; in the latter, all we uncover is ample proof that we fall short of our ideal self.

There is plenty of research evidence that people seek hypothesis—confirming data. When these hypotheses or questions are about ourselves, we need to take more care about what we are actually looking for and be smarter about the questions we ask ourselves. It turns out that I’m not so bad after all.