Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Mar 26, 2009

Questioner vs. Answerer

I got to thinking after a conversation with a friend of mine and realized that we have very distinct and different approaches to the way we think when we don't know something. For those familiar with Objectivist terminology: we have different psycho-epistemologies. After some more thinking, I realized that this distinction is actually pretty common, so I decided to write about it.

I realized that when people don't know something, most fall into one of two approaches to dealing with it. Some immediately start asking questions of whoever or whatever is available, while some sit down, summon up all of their relevant knowledge, and try to think through it themselves. I call these two types (obviously enough) the Questioner and the Answerer.

My friend is very definitely a Questioner, and he is pushy about it. Not in a bad way, he just wants you to explain and explain and explain and explain until you have to leave--conversations with him are never "finished", they just get interrupted by outside considerations. I'm very definitely an Answerer, which is why I wind up doing most of the explaining. Now, while I like being an Answerer (to the point where I can find persistent Questioners annoying after a while), I don't think that there's any moral significance to either approach. Neither type is more or less likely to be intellectually passive. The two just have *different* benefits and pitfalls.

Questioners have to understand that questions are not an end in themselves and to restrain their tendency to niggle at unimportant details, which means that they have to learn to distinguish what is important and what isn't. Questioners always have to be aware of and pay attention to fundamentals, which is often difficult for them to do. If they don't do this, many wind up as purposeless skeptics who refuse to accept any idea because they can still think of a few questions to ask--regardless of whether those questions make any sense or not. Questioners also have to spend some time learning how to answer their own questions instead of immediately turning to other people for the answers, a practice that has many pitfalls of its own as "other people" are not necessarily any more knowledgeable than you are. Conversations between two Questioners often launch into realms of increasingly bizarre arcana until the participants get bored or are forcibly separated. I think that this mental habit comes about as a result of enjoying picking apart statements. A questioner feels confident about his or her mental abilities when he or she spots and illuminates flaws.

Answerers, like me, have to first learn that "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. This is VERY hard for some to learn because an Answerer's general trait is that we enjoy knowing what we are talking about. The urge to have the answer can overcome logic and common sense, causing the Answerer to spout all kinds of nonsense very authoritatively. My housemate does this--he's another Answerer and sometimes we drive each other insane. Conversations between two Answerers are either a dance of careful ettiquette or they degenerate into shouting and epithets. You can always spot intellectually passive Answerers because they deliver pat answers to arcane questions in fields they know nothing about. Answerers with good memories (me) also sometimes have problems because they tend to rely on occasionally faulty memory rather than going and looking things up again. While this saves time, this can also run you intellectually into the weeds. With Questioners around, this can be really humiliating. Intellectually active Answerers learn from their humiliating mistakes and become increasingly careful about their utterances. Passive ones seek to surround themselves with people who never ask questions--they are EXTREMELY touchy about being contradicted and view this as tantamount to an assault.

People don't always fall entirely into one camp or the other, and some switch camps depending on the circumstances. Answerers, from what I've seen, tend to be older people with more life experience to draw on, although this is not always the case. I've ALWAYS been an answerer as far as I can remember, I'm sure my parents will back me up on this. My most common epithet as a child was "know-it-all" and my third-grade teacher found it a little alarming to be corrected in her pronounciation of "pterodactyl" by a seven-year-old.

Answerers also gain a lot of traction on the Internet (particularly in forums), where they can speak and be heard without being interrupted, whereas in real-time communications Questioners tend to hog most of the air time. (This is based on my personal experience, anyway. Your Mileage May Vary.) Intellectually passive Answerers in positions of authority make life miserable for everyone, but the intellectually active ones make reasonably good leaders--but so do intellectually active Questioners. They just differ in approach--the Answerer is decisive and definite, while the Questioner gets ALL the data before making a decision. Thus Answerers are somewhat better leaders in emergencies while Questioners are often better in more static situations.

The only area where I've seen a significant difference is in training--Questioners are godawful at training. Not teaching. Many Questioners are excellent teachers of the Socratic type because the ultimate purpose of teaching isn't to learn specific information but to learn how to approach a given class of problems or problems in general. When they are trying to train you on a specific task, however, they fail miserably, derailing themselves almost instantly into minutae instead of conveying any kind of global or methodical approach to the task. This may just be a result of the fact that I'm not good at memorizing a billion dissociated steps unless I know why I'm doing any given thing, but for training give me an Answerer every time. It works out, though, because Answerers tend to enjoy training. It allows us to show off our vast amounts of Knowledge.

If you're ever in any doubt about whether someone is a Questioner or an Answerer, a single question will set you straight: "Do you have any questions?" The Questioner mentality will probably have a round dozen. An Answerer will most likely stare at you blankly for several seconds and then either say "no, not really" or, at best, offer up some really easy and obvious question to show willing. They expect to figure things out as they go along, which is their usual method anyway.


SN said...

Great post.

I fit the "Answerer" mold.

I find that my 10-year old son does too (and has been like that since he was really young). I used to wonder why he was so much less overtly curious than some of his pals. Seemed to have an attitude that he would find out whatever he needed to when he needed to; what's the hurry.

I think "answerers" also tend to be very comfortable using "working hypotheses" to underlie their actions, until a contradiction pops up. On the one hand, it makes one really comfortable proceeding in a "low-certainty" context; OTOH, it can lull one into complacency at times.

Jennifer Snow said...

Hah, you were one of the people I thought about when I was initially trying to decide whether it was a general phenomenon or just specific to me. I can think of numerous people who fit into both categories now.

One of the reasons I find so incredibly valuable (and why I'm still around) is that, being an Answerer, I have a TERRIBLE time figuring out where my knowledge is vague or lacking. Being constantly challenged by the community at ObjectivismOnline has really helped me refine my thinking and keeps me on my mettle so I never just assume "oh, I've got this" and stop examining new things as they come up.

I've seen a lot of the Q vs. A on forums--the Q's tend to show up, post a whole lot, then get bored and wander off into other pursuits. The A's tend to fall into two camps: people who start off thinking they know everything about the forum, annoy the heck out of everyone by being snarky jerks and starting up incredibly redundant threads to show off how "smart" they are. They often get banned. More careful or shyer A's with better social skills do things like post an introduction and start reading threads that look interesting, then post. They often develop a reputation for being knowledgeable and stick around. Assuming nothing happens to seriously piss them off, they never get bored--every new question is a new opportunity for them.

Anonymous said...

Which camp would an A who is only enthusiastic about redundant questions from new Q's and indifferent, or even hostile, to "redundant" (ie: nuanced) questions from other, established, deserving Q's and A's fall into?

My guess is that such a person has confused "new things" with "the same old things asked new ways", and allowed himself to conflate a rhetorical victory with an educational experience.

Jennifer Snow said...

Talk about a convoluted comment. How the heck do you define "deserving" in this context? Who "deserves" someone's time and intellectual effort if they aren't interested in giving it?

Anonymous said...

I thought that the concept of "giving back to the community" was limited only to instances of economic charity. I can see that it's not.

A person who has achieved a certain independent level of understanding and seeks to expand it, is far more deserving of an equal's time than a stray questioner who's first impulse is to have someone else develop his understanding for him. And far more valuable.

Jennifer Snow said...

And which category do you imagine you're in, Mr. Anonymous?

Diana Hsieh said...

I like how you've framed this distinction. I'm definitely an Answerer, and I do find Questioners tiresome after a while. I want them to go home and think about the issue for themselves!

One question for you: Would you say that Questioners have empiricist tendencies, while Answerers have rationalist tendencies?

It seems that a person could be a fully objective Questioner or Answerer, but that each kind might tend to err in a specific direction.

Jennifer Snow said...

I'd have to say that from my own personal experience it tends to be the other way around! Questioners are generally more Rationalist while Answerers are generally more empiricist! (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

A Questioner confronted with, say, a new discussion or whatever won't summon up all their own concrete experiences and say "huh, that seems to apply", instead, they'll focus on some syntactic ambiguity or inadequacy and drill down into it with utter relentlessness until they've lost all connection whatsoever with anything even remotely related to reality.

An Answerer, on the other hand, since they want to think through the issue on their own, will dig through their memory and try to recall when they've encountered this or that that bears similarity to the situation they're dealing with/thinking about. They use their personal, empiricist, experience to tackle issues.

Robert W. Franson said...

An interesting bifurcation, and nicely developed with pro and con for both.

Answerers with good memories (me) also sometimes have problems because they tend to rely on occasionally faulty memory rather than going and looking things up again. While this saves time, this can also run you intellectually into the weeds.

Definitely! I often have to remind myself not to fetch a probable / possible answer out of memory, when a minute's visit to a nearby bookcase will give me an exact answer.

Anonymous said...

[different Anon, now]
I wonder where "Chewers" fit? Actually, I was thinking that Questioners seem to be more analytical in approach, and Answerers more synthetic. For instance, your distinction between trainers and teachers is good; and it occurs to me that your quick definition of the basic function of teaching is the sort of synthesis that an Answerer might advance - that, rather than a quote from some authority.

Jennifer Snow said...

Well, unless you can define what the characteristics of "chewers" are, I have no idea. And I'm not sure whether the analytical/synthetic thing really applies, either. I know several Questioners who have an integrated (synthetic) approach, they just really, really like to examine every single minute little thing. Answerers often adopt a synthetic approach (compartmentalizing bits of knowledge) because they adopt a "wait and see" policy if they can't figure out a given problem right away--they'll file it in its own drawer, sometimes for a long time, until they can get around to integrating it.