The fallacy of quick answers

Sometimes you have to hear a new idea several times before real thinking starts.

We get so used to trying to dispatch questions quickly (and ideas often ride the backs of good questions) we forget the most important part of a question – the  part where you stop and think before you answer.

It’s amazing how many people answer important questions instantly. If their answer is right, it’s not because they thought hard about the answer to the question in the moment. Maybe they thought about it when they heard the question years ago, but perhaps something has changed? And if it’s their first time with a big question, how can they be confident in their first answer?

I’ve learned I sometimes need to hear a question a few times before I deeply understand what is being asked, and why there isn’t an easy answer, despite how much I’d like one of my old answers to work for the new question. For that reason, although they can be annoying, I know there is value in people who keep asking me the same important questions. If I’m getting wiser, shouldn’t I keep finding better answers? Or notice when I’ve had the same answer for years?

I also know when someone says to me “are you ok?”, no matter what is going on, I have almost never in my life said No, even when I was not OK. I didn’t stop to think, as I was afraid thinking would lead to feeling and I didn’t want to think or feel in that moment. I suspect the same thing happens for may of us, on a smaller scale, for all sorts of questions all the time.

In some situations the first, second or even third answer isn’t going to be the most honest, or the most useful. It might take someone hitting you with that question many times before you truly start to think about it. Same for new ideas or frames of thinking of any kind.

I used to respect people who were masters of the quick answer. But as I get older it seems the masters of quick  answers are often just masters of facts. Trivia. Other people’s theories. Now I think when it comes to matters of importance, these are people to fear. I agree there is definitely a time for fast thinking, but when I look around it seems slow thinking is the path to many of the things we claim we want.

20 Responses to “The fallacy of quick answers”

  1. Scott Berkun

    Thanks Silvano.

    This line of thinking reminds me how useless much of the punditry on television is, since people are forced to give quick answers to very big questions. It can’t possibly represent their best thinking, or even in some cases any thinking at all.

    Any time a big question is asked, and the expert is not allowed to say “I don’t know and no one else does either” there is something flawed in the assumption anything intelligent is going on.

  2. Divya

    Agreed. I think this KISS theory is also partially to blame. Instead of clarity, it has taken to mean simple solutions and simple answers (sometimes even simple questions). If an idea requires more than 2 sentences to explain it means something is wrong with the idea or it is not worthy of consideration.

    I have come to realise that anything that has a trivial or simple explanation means it has not been researched enough or has constraints that have not been made public or obvious.

  3. Morten Hjerde

    I think a case can be made for why quick answers sometimes is a good thing.

    Your post made me think about something Eric Schmidt said recently:
    “You are better off having a company operating on a set of principles, […] than a political process, which clearly does not produce rational outcomes”

    Until recently I worked in a huge corporation where there was weak and unclear principles. Nothing could be known or decided without long processes that involved internal fighting among groups whose goals were not aligned. And any decision was temporary and could change when power shifted.

    I know this is somewhat tangential to what you are talking about in your post. But I think having sound principles at the core is necessary to make progress.
    Problematizing everything is easy. The real art lies in being able to catch the good or important questions.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Morten: I don’t disagree with you at all. I tried not to overstate all this slow business. Of course fast is good. I just know most cultures reward fast much better than they reward slow, even if fast drives projects into the ground.

    I’m increasingly fond of leaders who are willing to say “I don’t know” or “I need to think” or anything that suggests their awareness of what thinking is, and that it takes time.

  5. Sean Crawford

    Since Vietnam I’ve had a long time to think. At the time, it didn’t matter whether the conversation-discussion was to be five minutes or fifty minutes, everyone though they were supposed to first give a quick answer and only then discuss-defend.

    I could have answered, “I don’t know; which aspect would you like to consider-explore with me?” To answer in this way would have required me to have the self-discipline to decide in advance to withstand peer pressure towards a snap answer.

    The hot pressure was especially silly considering that even leaders in Washington, according to an historian, could not have passed an easy one-semester community college course on the Vietnamese. No such course was offered.

  6. Cher Ping

    Hi Scott, interesting post – and valid points at that. Unfortunately, we seem to be in an age where the giver of slow answers are deemed dull-witted and not suitable for the corperate fast-track (or rather, they’d not be able to run as fast on the mouse-wheel of the working world) – and often bypassed. Quick solutions (and often, glib-tongued people) seem to catch the attention of the “powers that are”.

    to make problems worse, i’ve seen that often, the issue to be addressed didn’t crop up overnight. you could see it a couple of miles off, but someone decided to sit on it, and feed the problem till it morphed into the current gremlin it is. result: [“lack of time”, “big issue”] = big stress + stupid solution.

  7. Josef

    Everything you say is right.

    It looks to me like – either way – the value is not purely in the question, but as much in the person asking it. That person is guiding us, using the question, to new insight. Some know how to encourage us to really think hard about the topic. Ideally, this also involves helping us circumvent our own internal defenses.

    I appreciate that you encourage us to think slowly. In the same way, I’d like to encourage us to appreciate the people who can handle this kind of questions well. As you say, such people can be annoying.

    What do you think about the people behind the questions?

  8. Gordon

    The flipside of this is outlined in Blink (Gladwell book), where experts KNOW something (an answer) without fully understanding why.

    Which in a way backs up your thoughts, that repeated asking of the question may lead to the same answer but will bring a much better understanding of why it’s the RIGHT answer.

  9. rodica

    It’s a very typical react vs respond issue, isn’t it? Responding takes thinking, while reacting…doesn’t.

    Everyone has been trained to want simple solutions to everything and we revere speed much than depth of insight (well, ok, if we can have both and can tell that we have both – awesome!)

    Plus, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll take clear, thoughtful answers, over fast & simple ones any day. Tough questions are considered tough for a reason.

  10. Scott Berkun


    Responding vs. Reacting – that’s good.

    Part of the problem is fighting for the floor – in some workplaces if you don’t jump in early with an opinion it’s hard to get heard. There’s a perceived advantage to speaking quickly. If the person with the most power in the room doesn’t lend their authority to those who think slower (e.g. “Hey Sally, you’ve been quiet so far – what do you think?”) then those who are merely better at reacting get more influence than they should.

  11. Phil Simon

    Good post, Scott.

    I agree with you:

    Any time a big question is asked, and the expert is not allowed to say “I don’t know and no one else does either” there is something flawed in the assumption anything intelligent is going on.

    Very true.

    But there’s also something to be said for the “Blink” mentality that Gladwell describes. I’d say that it depends on the issue. I can answer certain questions without thinking, especially if they’re technology related (Access, SQL, ERP, etc.). For “deeper” questions, though, I’m with you. A quick answer is often not well thought out.

  12. Murali

    There is a cultural element in the answer to “How are you”. In India, we tend to answer this question in complete sincerety. Even to strangers we give a clear answer on why and how we arent feeling upto it. Most indians who move to US, find this the first tough adjustment to make. “Hows it going” is a rhetorical question.
    You might want to catch the hilarious movie/book “Inscrutable americans”

  13. Scott Berkun


    Very true.

    Even within countries there are other similiar situations.

    I grew up in NYC. A common greeting is to say “What’s up?”. The appropriate response is to say “What’s up?” right back.

    Here in Seattle people take the question literally. I’ve had to train friends that when I say “What’s up”, as a greeting, I probably am just saying hi.

    People are quite silly, aren’t we?

  14. Sean Crawford

    Since Blogger doesn’t do trackback, let me say here that I was so inspired that I did my own essay on my own blog to restate what Scott said, quoting him liberally.

  15. Elisabeth Bucci

    I have two takeaways from this post, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    (1) I am not the master of the quick answer. Never have been. I am a “slow cooker”. I like to mull things over until I have the answer “just right”. So this post vindicated me, even just a little bit.

    (2) In this age of Twitter and the quick status update, I have my own approach to blogging. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn status updates (and by extension Tumblr, Posterous) are my “quick answers” = Responding, or “blurting it out”. My blog, on the other hand, to which I most certainly do not post daily (which apparently is “against the rules”) is for my thought out answers. Only when they’re good and ready.

    Works for me.



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