What Separates The Smart From The Average: They Aren't Afraid To Ask Questions

by Alexia LaFata

The smartest people aren't afraid to admit that they don't know something.

If you claim to know everything, if you never ask for advice or if you revel in being a know-it-all, you are foolish and missing out on the chance to actually become smarter.

All of your time spent trying to figure things out on your own could have been filled with learning from people who actually know what they're talking about. This is why it's so important to ask questions.

A surprising amount of us, however, don't. But why? Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School and her research team led a series of five studies to figure out what really happens when we inquire.

In one study, Brooks gave participants a hypothetical situation in which they were stuck on a problem at work. One group of participants was told that it had to ask for help from a coworker, and another group of participants was told that it had to solve the problem alone.

Both groups then had to rate how they felt others would perceive them. Those who had to ask a coworker for help consistently felt people would think less of them, and those who had to do it alone did not feel this way.

We fear asking questions because we don't want to appear stupid. Humans, so it seems, have lots of pride.

In college, I took some computer science classes. Many of the students, especially those who had taken computer science in high school, were doing problem sets with ease and understanding every word of lecture. People hardly asked questions and seemed to know exactly what they were doing -- or, at least, they seemed like they knew.

Well, not only did I not know what I was doing a majority of the time, but I unabashedly asked any and all questions in class, in office hours, and via email.

One day, I received an email from my professor personally thanking me for all of my questions, especially those I asked in class. He said that he believes they're helpful to other students who he also knew were struggling, and that it shows I have a real interest in the subject material.

So, despite the fact that I easily was not the most naturally intelligent person in the class, my professor specifically sought me out to express his appreciation for my inquisitive nature.

While asking for advice may have made others in the class feel "dumb," in reality, it made me seem even more competent than my peers.

Brooks and her team of researchers prove this phenomenon. When you ask for advice, according to Brooks, you are actually perceived as more capable.

In another one of her studies, when people were asked for advice, they felt more confident, which in turn enhanced their opinion of the asker. It's a positive, two-way street: You, the inquirer, get the information you need, and the person who provides the information to you gets a self-esteem boost.

This is important. People often have an unfounded fear of being inquisitive. They feel ashamed or silly, but truthfully, there is nothing negative that comes from asking questions. At the end of the day, life gets confusing, and we have to ask about it sometimes.

In fact, we live in a world that bombards us with an abundance of potentially perplexing information.

Between the 600 advertisements the average American adult is exposed to and the 11 hours spent on digital media (including smartphones, TV, Internet, and even the radio) each day, this ridiculous overload of information can be difficult to manage.

But those who are the most successful in managing it are those who ask the most questions.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority in psychometric testing and personality profiling and a professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), says humans have three main psychological qualities that determine our ability to organize large amounts of information: IQ, EQ, and CQ.

Our IQ is our intellectual quotient, EQ is our emotional quotient and our ability to control, perceive, and express our emotions, and our CQ is our curiosity quotient.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic says the curiosity quotient is concerned with having a "hungry mind":

People with higher CQ are more inquisitive and open to new experiences. They find novelty exciting and are quickly bored with routine. They tend to generate many original ideas and are counter-conformist.

Although CQ hasn't been studied as deeply as IQ and EQ, Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that a high CQ helps us manage complexity in two main ways. Primarily, a high CQ equates to a high tolerance of ambiguity, so complex ideas that may not be perfectly clear at first sit well with those with a high CQ.

Secondly, to explore such ambiguous information, high CQ-ers invest lots of energy into acquiring information through formal education and through experience. Both education and experience help turn complex situations into more familiar ones, so a high CQ means you're able to break down complex problems and find simple solutions.

Overall, curious individuals are simply able to organize their worlds better. So, the next time you don't know the answer to something, don't be afraid to ask. It won't hurt as much as you think it will.

Channel your inner child and ask the 288 questions you used to ask a day before you were afraid of the repercussions.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It