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Over the weekend, I was trying to remember something I’d read in Tyler Cowen’s book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Using Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist.

And I looked it up—so interesting!

Sometimes, when we ask a question, we know that people might be reluctant to give a true opinion. Maybe they’re worried about angering someone else or appearing unsophisticated or admitting what they actually think or do.

Tyler Cowen made an observation that I think is absolutely fascinating, and one that provides a possible solution to this non-disclosure problem. He writes:

To get a person’s real opinion, ask what she thinks everyone else believes…If people truly hold a particular belief, they are more likely to think that others agree or have had similar experiences. For instance, if a man has had more than thirty sexual partners, he will more likely think that such behavior is common. After all, his life is one ‘data point,’ and that data point presumably weighs heavily in his mind…Furthermore the man with more than thirty partners probably knows a higher percentage of other people with thirty partners or more. This will further encourage him to make a high estimate of how many partners other people have had…[People] tend to assume that other people have had life histories at least somewhat similar to their own. When we talk about other people, we are often talking about ourselves, whether we know it ourselves.

So imagine that you’re considering sending your children to a particular school. Asking your friend, “What complaints do parents have about the school?” instead of asking, “How do you like the school?” might elicit a better answer.

Or maybe you’re considering going to a particular doctor. A person might not want personally to express criticism, but if you said, “How do most patients feel about that doctor’s office?” you might hear more.

This sounds surprising, but imagine how you would answer questions such as, “Do you think most people get along well with their in-laws?” “Do you think most people cheat on their taxes?” “Do you think most people love music?” “Do you think most people go to sleep after midnight?” Isn’t your inclination to respond with an answer that’s true for you? And yet, the answer doesn’t feel like self-disclosure!

If this kind of thing interests you, you might also enjoy reading about why a mirror can make you behave better, and five more tips for boosting self-control.

What do you think? Do you think most people would be interested in trying this strategy? (Hah.)

Also …

  • Are you interested in launching a group for people doing happiness projects together? These groups have sprung up all over the world, and one of my favorite things on my book tour was to meet some of the groups. Intrigued? Email me, and I’ll send you the starter kit. Read more here.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

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*Photo Credit: modenadude via Compfight cc