That’s a good question


Lucas A. Meyer


July 4, 2022

I sometimes cringe when people say “that’s a good question” and it was not a good question. But even bad questions are good, because of pluralistic ignorance.

Is there such a thing as a bad question?

When I was young, I read in a Carl Sagan book (The Demon-Haunted World) that “there was no such thing as a dumb question”. In the same paragraph, however, Sagan concedes that there are “naive”, “tedious”, “ill-phrased” questions. These days, however, any presentation or conference call is full of people saying “good question” after literally any question.

Although I sometimes still internally cringe when something seemingly obvious is asked, that’s a mistake on my part: asking questions requires courage, and it can solve a really important problem called “pluralistic ignorance”.

Pluralistic Ignorance

To explain pluralistic ignorance, I’ll borrow from David McRaney’s YANSS podcast: ‘Have you ever been in a classroom or a business meeting or a conference and had a question or been confused by the presentation, and when the person running the show asked, “Does anyone have any questions?” or, “Does anyone not understand?” or, “Is anyone confused?” you looked around, saw no one else raising their hands, and then chose to pass on the opportunity to clear up your confusion?’

Later, it turns out, you may learn that everybody was as confused as you, but everybody decided to remain ignorant. That’s called pluralistic ignorance. It’s a bad outcome for teams: the majority of team members knows something is missing, but each one thinks that they’re wrong. The team never realizes that the majority was right all along until it’s too late. The team makes a wrong decision.

One way to break out of pluralistic ignorance is to have someone is brave enough to ask a question, even if it is a naive, tedious or ill-phrased one. That can open the floodgates. It doesn’t matter the question was not that good by any measure, it can break the spell of pluralistic ignorance.

That’s a good question!

Regardless, I would rarely say “that’s a good question” unless I thought it was good. I realized that instead, I would say “thanks for asking that question”. There was no reward for me to be pedantic, it was just an immature reflex. Now that I’m wiser, I say “that’s a good question” far more often. If a question helps us break out of pluralistic ignorance, it’s really a good question.

David has a new book

By the way, David McRaney has a new book, called #ad “How Minds Change”.

Posts on this blog are **not** sponsored. Regardless, links to products or services that might compensate me have the #ad tag