Have you ever been in a conversation with what feels like deriving blood from a stone? The flow of the talk is rigid with closed question. The silence between every exchange becomes increasingly tense. How can you solve this?
The answer is weird yet simple – Say the wrong thing.
But why does this work?
As we go through life, our brains generally correct things for us. Rajeev R. Tripathi, a researcher at IIM Bangalore, says this human tendency to correct others can be used as a strategic tool to increase the engagement of students’ by 80%.
This tendency to correct others occurs outside of academia too. It can even be applied to actions rather just questions. For example, if you were like me as child, you did a bad job of cleaning the kitchen, and so the mother felt almost compelled to take over and do the job properly, correcting my sloppy errors.
But what about conversations? How is saying the wrong thing supposed to increase more conversation? The phenomenon is called “Cunningham’s Law,” and you can use it right now to help making prevent conversation from running dry.
Ask a Dumb Question, Get a
Dumb Smart Answer.
Cunningham’s Law works because humans generally feel the need to correct others. ‘People do not like telling you things; they love to contradict you’. – Sherlock Holmes
Therefore if you want smart answers, do not ask a question. Instead, give a wrong answer or ask a question in such a way that it already contains the wrong information.
It is highly likely that people will correct you.
In its simplest and most accurate explanation of the phenomenon being described: People generally don’t want to be helpful, but they do want to be the smartest person in the room.
How To Use Cunningham’s Law
ask an engineer ‘tell me about your Engineering job’, and their response would be something along the lines of ‘I design systems’. And then you would ask a list of follow-up questions with boring one-sentence answers — which no one likes doing.
Now, if you instead say something inaccurately along the lines of, ‘so, you’re an engineer. That means you build engines, right?’ They’ll immediately correct your ignorance. They’ll go into detail explaining what an engineer is, what it isn’t, and what kind they are. All you have to do is chime in with a variation of ‘are you sure?’ every few minutes and they’re talking up a storm for the rest of the conversation.
By being ignorant about a topic they are knowledgeable in, it gives them some authority in the conversation and that builds up their confidence.
It’s crazy how you can ask a question intentionally assuming incorrect data and influence a person’s behavior. The only downside is that sometimes people get condescending.
Although, it’s a large part of the actual point — that many people are inherently more willing to jump into a conversation in which they can feel superior. Hence, it makes the conversation engaging to them.
In fairness, they don’t know the real reason behind your misinformation, and that’s the price you pay for psychological influence. Nevertheless, if you often encounter situations of boring small-talk, this human disposition might be useful the next time you want to evoke an interesting conversation.