How to Ask Questions (2017-2018)


In current culture, people usually discuss controversial moral and political issues only among like-minded people who do not press challenging questions. In fact, calling on people to justify their moral, political and religious views, especially in contexts where others might disagree, is widely regarded as impolite, even insulting. Moreover, asking people about their views can spur rationalizations and polarization that cause disagreements to become even more entrenched.

However, some evidence suggests that people who are regularly called upon to answer the right kinds of questions will exhibit greater intellectual humility and will be more likely to participate constructively in public discussions. The crucial question, then, asks which questions are the right questions for encouraging humility and cooperation.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will identify a range of questions, drawing on existing literature including questions not only about effects of and reasons for policies but also about causes of one’s beliefs, the strength of one’s arguments, how many others agree, and evidence, arguments and thought processes of opponents. The project team will investigate which of these questions increase humility and which raise barriers to constructive discourse, such as defensiveness, rationalization and polarization.

The team’s goal is to test the hypothesis that, if students are trained in a culture that encourages people to regularly ask themselves and others the right questions, then they will become better at understanding their own or others’ points of view and, hence, at navigating an ideologically diverse world.

Team members will first map out the various kinds of questions, drawing on philosophical work on argumentation, justification, reasoning and rationalization. They will then use surveys and questionnaires to examine how asking various kinds of questions affects people’s confidence in and commitment to their own views as well as their attitudes toward others who disagree. The team will use MTurk to reach a large and diverse population as well as in-person surveys on campus and in the community (including at the North Carolina state fair) to provide additional confirmation of our results. The focus will be on developing a battery of questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with diverse perspectives.

The team will visit the Right Questions Institute and will consult with the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind. This project is associated with the Moral Attitudes and Decisions lab in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Anticipated Outcomes

Presentations and at least two academic papers reporting empirical findings and/or the philosophical issues they raise, coauthored by student team members


Fall 2017 – Spring 2018

  • Fall 2017: Develop questionnaires; first round of online data collection; preliminary analysis of online data collection; in-person data collection
  • Spring 2018: Analysis of in-person data collection; visit SAGE Center for collaboration; begin writing up results into papers and presentations

Team Outcomes to Date

How to Ask Questions (talk by Kyra Rubin, JJ Moncus, Rose Graves and Sarah Sculco), EHDx, April 19, 2018

How to Ask Questions (poster by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Jesse Summers, Jordy Carpenter, Rose Graves, Sarah Sulco, Kyra Exterovich-Rubin, and JJ Moncus), presented at EHDx, April 19, 2018

Project team website (winner, Best Education & Human Development Website)


Research on Empathy Inspires Ph.D. Student to Think Outside the “Humanities Box”

This Team in the News

Seeking Change in How We Talk Politics

Bass Connections Showcase Presents Research Highlights from Durham to Malaysia

Third Annual EHDx Talks Celebrates Student Research

Asking the Tough Questions

Philosophy Student Explores Healthcare Ethics, Political Disagreement

Former Kenan Fellow, Researcher to Teach Ethics at University of Toronto

See related team, How to Cure Political Polarization by Asking Questions (2018-2019).

Bass Connections team members

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Aaron Ancell, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Jordan Carpenter, Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy*
  • Joshua Skorburg, Arts & Sciences-Philosophy
  • Jesse Summers, Kenan Institute for Ethics|Arts & Sciences-Other - A&S*

/graduate Team Members

  • Esko (Scott) Brummel, Bioethics and Sci Policy - AM
  • Hannah Read, Philosophy-PHD
  • Valerie-Jean Soon, Philosophy-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Kyra Exterovich-Rubin, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Rose Graves, Neuroscience (AB)
  • Jerry (JJ) Moncus, Mathematics (BS)
  • Sarah Sculco, Philosophy (AB)