Research You Can Use
Ask Don't Tell

No one likes to be told what to do. The research results of assistant professor of marketing, Dr. Ioannis Kareklas ’03, indicated that asking may work better than telling. He and his colleagues found that asking a specific question leads to a change in behavior more readily than telling someone what to do.

Their meta-analysis considered more than 100 studies over 40 years and involved more than 2 million participants. In one study, an insert accompanying a pay stub asked the question, “Are you going to sign-up for a free health and fitness assessment?” Employees registered in droves.

Asking works less well for routine behaviors. Asking your 10-year-old, “Will you pick up your toys?” or your husband, “Will you take out the garbage?” will garner less of an affirmative response than asking both of them, “Will you go bungie jumping with me?” It’s not just due to the fact that bungie jumping is more fun than cleaning up. It’s because bungie jumping is a novelty, while cleaning is routine. Kareklas said, “If it is not something you usually ask for, the results will be stronger. We become desensitized to hearing the same thing many times, such as flossing your teeth.” Bungie jumping, like a free health assessment, is considered novel. It does not happen every day.

A question that can be answered “yes” or “no,” such as “Will you vote in November?” results in a higher voting rate, than a complex question with a variety of answers, such as, “When will you vote again?” or “Who will you vote for?” or “Will you vote in the primaries, the general election or both?” Kareklas said, “A middle option creates apathy.” It does not encourage behavior change.

Why does asking work better than telling? Asking a question forces the listener to face discrepancies regarding how far their behavior is from the ideal. To resolve this internal dissonance, changes have to be made.

Asking works best when the goal is a “socially beneficial behavior,” such as voting, recycling and even exercising. It works less well for consumer-related questions. Since “Will you buy a computer this year?” does not have a socially conscious dimension, it is less effective than, “Will you eat more vegetables?”

You can use this technique on yourself. It works just as well. Be specific and you can motivate yourself to meet your own goals. After you ask, you might want to ask again. The effect dissipates over time, tending to persist six months to a year.

The School of Business is Kareklas’s next subject. Maria Khazova ’16 of the student chapter of the American Marketing Association is heading up the effort to test his hypothesis by posting signs in the school asking “Will you recycle today?”

Kareklas is an alumnus who earned a dual major from the University at Albany, a B.S in business with a concentration in marketing and a B.A. in communication. This research, “A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Question-Behavior Effect,” was published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Kareklas’s collaborators were Eric R. Spangenberg, Berna Devezer and David E. Sprott. Their research was covered by more than 135 news outlets across the globe.