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24th March 2006 | Draft

Question Avoidance, Evasion, Aversion and Phobia

why we are unable to escape from traps

-- / --

Annex to
Council of the Whys: emergent wisdom through configuration of why-question dynamics

"Risk aversion" and "Loss aversion": implications for questions
Questioning in relation to learning
Question reluctance, Question aversion and Question phobia: Unaskable Questions
Question avoidance vs Question evasion
Distinguishing "avoidance" and "evasion" for 7 WH-questions

Transformation of WH-questions as part of the avoidance / evasion process -- towards a science of "spin"?
Management of question avoidance and evasion


The concern here is to clarify the nature of the various forms of question avoidance and their consequences. The main focus is the distinction between such forms in the case of the 7 WH-questions (or interrogatives): when, where, which, how, what, who and why. Of partiuclar interest is the possibility of using the avoidance of these questions as a basis for understanding both the persistence of the range of problems profiled in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential -- and the hindrances to the strategies in response to them. This approach leads to a presentation of these forms as a set of interrelated conditions that point to a science of "spin" but also to a healthy framework within which the appropriateness of particular forms of question can be considered.

Questions are valued in sectors dependent on adaptation in response to changing conditions. Leaders are expected to challenge the status quo: moving others out of their "comfort zones"; creating a compelling vision; establishing stretch goals; asking challenging questions [more].

Identifying and posing challenging questions for others, who are expected to find the answers, is therefore recognized as a key characteristic of leadership -- if only for the questionable purpose of keeping followers off-balance. But leaders may ask such questions of themselves. For example, John S McCallum (As the Economy Turns: 10 Questions for Executives, Ivey Business Journal, May/June 2001) identifies ten questions that business leaders should ask themselves in order to respond to issues vital to their success in periods of uncertainty. They are: Is the structure right? Is the business model sustainable? Do you want to be in the business you are in? Is executive success in place? Do you know your customer? Are the costs right? Is the product right? Do you know your competition? Is the balance sheet right? Where are you on technology? Leadership courses for executives typically focus on such challenging questions rather than on formulaic answers.

In the light of this recognition, in the case of business leadership, the exploration here endeavours to identify the challenges for social change leadership that may be especially associated with the classical WH-questions.

"Risk aversion" and "Loss aversion": implications for questions

The concept of "risk aversion" or "loss aversion" is fundamental in two main arenas:

With respect to questions, it might then be asked in what way it is a case of:

The focus is usefully shifted to meaning by Stephen L. Talbott (Aversion to Risks; or loss of meaning?):

What I want to suggest, however, is that we need a more fundamental category than risk-aversion to understand what is going on. The category I have in mind is meaning -- admittedly a difficult one to deal with. People who are driven by profound meaning are not risk-averse. The Christian martyr, the patriot eager to fight for his country, the mother who suffers and sacrifices for her children, the terrorist gripped by a great cause -- these people take risks because they find the risks freighted with meaning. Our age, however, has widely become known as the age of meaninglessness, and for good reason.

Questioning in relation to learning

The issue of meaning with respect to risk and loss may be related to the certainities and uncertainities of learning. In a study for the Club of Rome (James W Botkin, et al. No Limits to Learning; bridging the human gap, 1979), three different types of learning were distinguished:

As noted in a critique of that Club of Rome study (Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory, 1980), maintenance learning reinforces existing categories and paradigms, the disciplines to which they give rise, and the professional and institutional division of labour of which they are the basis. It is shock learning that has established new programmes, new institutions, and the need for new kinds of information services crossing previous categories (e.g. the environment or energy crises).

With respect to both collective and individual learning, the challenge of how questions get framed or avoided is notably highlighted by the phenomenon of group think -- as exemplified by the handling of evidence in relation to weapons of mass destruction and terrorism (cf Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale, 2002; Cui Bono: Groupthink vs Thinking the Unthinkable? Reframing the suffocating consensus in response to 7/7, 2004).

Gary B. Cohen (What Is The Difference Between Challenging Questions and Intimidating Questions? 2005) makes the vital distinction in relation to learning: "Challenging questions open people up to creative thinking..... Challenging questions inspire people to action -- to bridge the gulf between possibility and reality. Intimidating questions shut off creative thinking". These extremes point to the value of distinguishing the "variety of questioning styles" or "modes of questioning" that may enhance or inhibit learning, for example:

A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped
(Geoffrey Vickers. Freedom in a Rocking Boat :
Changing values in an unstable society
, 1972)

Question reluctance, Question aversion and Question phobia: Unaskable questions

Question reluctance: Marilee G. Adams (No Questions Equals No Sales) offers an interesting description of question reluctance in relation to the selling process:

Question reluctance is a discomfort, fear and/or avoidance of asking and answering questions. It is akin to, and contributes to, call reluctance. Some people actually get physically anxious or tense, with symptoms like clammy palms or a rapid heart beat. Prospective customers sense anxiety and react to it, consciously or unconsciously. It can be uncomfortable to interact with someone who's anxious, so they may not even want to speak with you. That's one reason why question reluctance is a significant factor in sabotaging sales success. It's also why developing ease and eagerness with questions can make such a difference to your bottom line.

Perhaps surprisingly, question reluctance has been specifically recognized as characteristic of the legal profession, as noted by Carolyn Elefant (Ask a Simple Question: advice that lawyers find hard to follow,, 11 April 2005), arguing that law school conditions law students to equate the inability to answer questions with failure -- often with disastrous consequences.

Question aversion and phobia:

Unaskable questions: These are implict in the "unsaid", variously understood (cf Global Strategic Implications of the Unsaid: from myth-making towards a wisdom society, 2003; Varieties of the Unsaid in sustaining psycho-social community, 2003). They are the questions which run the risk of provoking change, whether desirable or undesirable.

Unanswerable questions: It is the assumption that some questions are unanswerable that has notably resulted in avoidance of such questions:

Undefined questions: Where questions are poorly defined, there may be reluctance to answer them or to treat them as worthy of consideration:

Unconsidered questions: These are recognized with the emergence of new perspectives:

Unidentified questions: Such questions may be considered as fundamental to the creation of knowledge.

There is a case for reviewing question avoidance, and especially "unidentifiable questions" as being an implicit challenge to the identity of a person or a group. As Kenneth Boulding (Ecodynamics; a new theory of social evolution, 1978) teasingly puts it:

Our consciousness of the unity of self in the middle of a vast complexity of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the unity of group, organization, department, discipline or science. If personification is a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors -- we might be one ourselves.

But, beyond such use of metaphor as an answer to the challenge of identity, why should identity not be associated as much with a question as with any answer to it? In Boulding's terms, we may be the question itself rather than any particular answer to it.

Question avoidance vs Question evasion

A clear distinction is made between "tax avoidance" and "tax evasion" [more]. This can be helpful in distinguishing between "question avoidance" and "question evasion". Thus:

In the case of both avoidance and evasion, the question may potentially be asked by oneself of oneself. However these distinctions are, of course, not clearly made in practice -- as with regard to taxation.

Question evasion is addressed by so-called "hard questions" as well as by acknowledging the tendency to avoid them -- rather than "biting the bullet" (cf Questions to which Many deserve Answers, 2000). The aftermath of 9/11 has given rise to commentary on "avoiding hard questions". Reductionism can be seen as a way of avoiding hard questions [more]. Management avoidance of hard questions is seen as a means of making fewer hard decisions [more]. Blaming others -- blacks, muslims, etc -- may be seen as a typical technique to ensure such avoidance. The potential cost of avoiding hard questions, in the case of Iraq, was stated by a member of the US House Armed Services Committee: "We can win this war and come out the weaker for it, if we're not very careful." [more]. Population-control zealots may complain about overly fertile Third World women while avoiding hard questions about overconsumption in their own countries.

Jonathan Chait (The Peculiar Duplicity of Ari Fleischer New Republic Online, 2005) provides a helpful analysis of the techniques of responding to "hard questions" used by a White House press secretary.

But what Fleischer does, for the most part, is not really spin. It's a system of disinformation -- blunter, more aggressive, and, in its own way, more impressive than spin. Much of the time Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises -- or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether.

Chait names and describes the techniques employed by Fleischer: Audacious Fib, Process Non-Sequitur, The Rules

Michael Kinsley (Just Supposin': In defense of hypothetical questions. 2003) generalizes this phenomenon:

Avoiding questions (from reporters, from opponents, from citizens) is the basic activity of the American politician. Or rather, avoiding the supply of answers. Skill and ingenuity in question-avoidance techniques are a big factor in political success. Usually, avoiding the question involves pretending to answer it, or at least supplying some words to fill the dead space after the question has been asked. But if you can squeeze a question into one of a few choice categories, the unwritten rules allow the politician to not answer at all.

In the case of political debates, the US Debate Advisory Standards Project found that with respect to political candidates:

With respect to failure to answer questions, most opposed punishment. Participants believed that the moderator should note that the question had not been answered and pose the question again. Participants opposed further punishment based on their belief that the damage to a candidate's image caused by question-avoidance is punishment enough. [more]

The various phases in the the reluctance to investigate the evidence relating to incidents surrounding 9/11, followed by the response to the presentation of evidence for "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, the associated "intelligence failure", and the various subsequent inquiries, all provide a multitude of examples of question avoidance and evasion (cf 911+ Questions in Seeking UnCommon Ground and protecting the Middle Way, 2001). The nature of questioning in relation to evidence is also characteristic of crime detection. This may involve both question avoidance and question evasion: when (time), where (place), which (instrument), how (mode of operation), what (nature of crime), who (suspects), why (motive).

Another distinction that could help to clarify the relation between "question avoidance" and "question evasion" is that between "conflict prevention" and "conflict avoidance" (cf Robert Bacal, The Difference Between Conflict Prevention And Conflict Avoidance). It might be asked whether other insights could be obtained from any distinction between "intimacy avoidance" and "intimacy evasion" -- especially given that a question may well be associated with intimate, if not invasive, semantic or existential engagement.

Distinguishing "avoidance" and "evasion" for 7 WH-questions

In each of the following seven cases, avoidance may be "legitimately" achieved by misdirection and misleading -- most charmingly in flirtation and courtship. This may be understood as evasion if it is done to gain unfair advantage. The distinction is obvious in the case of sleight of hand for amusement and its use when cheating in card games for money.

There is a case for distinguishing the terms characteristic of misleading "answers" to the 7 WH-questions, perhaps: "then" (in response to a when-question), "there" (where-question), "this" (which), "thus" (how), "that" (what), "them" (whom), and "because" (why). Each of these may be used to collapse uncertainity and complex dilemmas inappropriately and prematurely. This is best characterized in well-known phrases such as that of Myron Tribus "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong" or that variously attributed to Will Rogers and H L Mencken 'There is a simple solution to every problem - and it is always wrong". This has been variously paraphrased, for example: "For every human problem there is a solution that is quick, simple, inexpensive -- and wrong".

When-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "when shy" may be distinguished with respect to when-questions such as the following:

Where-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "where shy" may be distinguished with respect to where-questions such as the following:

Which-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "which shy" may be distinguished with respect to which-questions such as the following:

How-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "how shy" may be distinguished with respect to how-questions such as the following:

What-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "what shy" may be distinguished with respect to what-questions such as the following:

Who-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "who shy" may be distinguished with respect to who-questions such as the following:

Why-question avoidance / evasion: Processes of avoidance (distraction) or evasion (dissimulation) by the "why shy" may be distinguished with respect to why-questions such as the following:

Transformation of WH-questions as part of the avoidance / evasion process -- towards a science of "spin"?

WH-questions can in practice be transformed from one to the other for the purposes of avoidance or evasion. The advantages are seen from the following cases of transformation of a WH-question into:

These processes could be understood as a form of "conceptual gerrymandering" to frame contexts in which radical questions do not need to be asked -- by transforming such questions into non-threatening substitutes (cf Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge -- positive vs negative, 2006). Of particular interest, as a process of avoidance, is the transformation of a "more powerful" question into a "less significant" one of lower complexity (cf Engaging with Questions of Higher Order: cognitive vigilance required for higher degrees of twistedness, 2004).

Management of question avoidance and evasion

The challenge of determining the appropriateness of questioning is highlighted by interrelating the set of WH-questions in the following table. A similar 7x7 table based on WH-questions has been produced by Chris Lucas (Questioning Our Methodologies, 2006) focusing however on questions and answers. An approach to interrelating the 7 questions in a 3 x 4 table is presented elsewhere (Functional Complementarity of Higher Order Questions psycho-social sustainability modelled by coordinated movement, 2004)

The cells of the 3-part table indicate the existence of particular conditions. the neutral pattern is as presented. A second pattern, focusing on conditions of avoidance, is obtained by substituting "avoid" for "ask" in the text for each cell. Similarly a third and more challenging pattern is obtained by substituting "evade" for "ask" in the text for each cell. The challenge is "when" to use the first set of neutral conditions indicated, "when" the second, and "when" the third -- and to envisage "where", "which", "how", "what", "who", and "why" to use them.

3-part Template of WH-question variants:
(i) neutral, based on asking a question (as shown below)
(ii) question-avoidance: based on substitution of "avoid" for "ask" in the following,
(iii) question-evasion: based on substitution of "evade" for "ask" in the following

. When Where Which How What Who Why

why ask a when-question

why ask a where-question

why ask a which-question

why ask a how-question

why ask a what-question

why ask a who-question

why ask a why-question


who to ask a when-question

who to ask a where-question

who to ask a which-question

who to ask a how-question

who to ask a what-question

who to ask a who-question

who to ask a why-question


what when-question to ask

what where-question to ask

what which-question to ask

what how-question to ask

what what-question to ask

what who-question to ask

what why-question to ask


how to ask a when-question

how to ask a where-question

how to ask a which-question

how to ask a how-question

how to ask a what-question

how to ask a who-question

how to ask a why-question


which when-question to ask

which where-question to ask

which which-question to ask

which how-question to ask

which what-question to ask

which who-question to ask

which why-question to ask


where to ask a when-question

where to ask a where-question

where to ask a which-question

where to ask a how-question

where to ask a what-question

where to ask a who-question

where to ask a why-question


when to ask a when-question

when to ask a where-question

when to ask a which-question

when to ask a how-question

when to ask a what-question

when to ask a who-question

when to ask a why-question

The table above is coloured to distinguish four segments as a consequence of distinguishing:

The coloured segments are:

Presumably the elements of the table, without the avoidance/evasion substitutions, are the modalities of the art of questioning appropriately. This would include the capacity to ask "nasty" questions (Checklist of "Nasty" Questions to Pose -- regarding development analyses and initiatives, 1981) -- as does Andreas Agiorgitis, following this adaptation of a classical adage in relation to WH-questions:

There was an opportunity for a real transformative change initiative. Everbody was sure that Somebody would take the opportunity. Anybody could have done so. But Nobody did. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody's responsibility. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody was failing to do so. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done!

The approach taken here assumes that the challenge of the times may be associated more with how they are understood rather than what they are understood to be -- more with how they condition, and are determined by, thinking and less with the effects they appear individually to produce.

Any such perspective on social change points to the merit of classifying the 30,000 "world problems" in terms of the WH-questions (unasked, if not unaskable) that they particularly imply -- or which inhibit articulation and implementation of the 35,000 "strategies" for their alleviation (cf Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential)

The challenge is when to ask what question and why. One indication is provided by Arthur Young (Geometry of Meaning, 1976) who pointed out that a minimum of six observations is required to determine the behaviour of a free agent (and consequently in a position of power) -- six questions to determine the behaviour, plus an additional one to determine why? [more] This may respond to the dilemma of social change, succinctly stated as:

When and where can which facts be proven; how can this be achieved with any credibility -- by whom, signifying what, and why would they endeavour to do so?


Marilee Adams:

James W Botkin, Mahdi Elmandjra and Mircea Malitza. No Limits to Learning; bridging the human gap. Oxford, Pergamon, 1979 ("A Report to the Club of Rome")

Anthony Judge:

Bill McGuire. Global Catastrophes, Oxford, 2006

Jamie McKenzie. The Question is the Answer. creating research programs for an Age of Information, The Question Mark, Vol 7, No 2, October 1997 [text]

Susan Piver:

Union of International Associations. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. 1994-5 [contents]

World Question Center. What Questions Have Disappeared? 2001 [text]

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