Why Do Negative Questions Prompt Negative Answers?

I recently read a 2017 HBR article about the gender gap in venture capital meetings. What stuck with me is that 85% of entrepreneurs responded to questions “in a manner that matched the question’s orientation.”

Let me explain this.

The researchers analyzed Q&A interactions between VCs and entrepreneurs to determine why female founders receive considerably less funding than their male peers.

They discovered that VCs posed different types of questions to male and female entrepreneurs: men were asked about the potential for gains (promotion questions) and women about the potential for losses (prevention questions).

Here’s an example from the HBR article:

“A promotion question would look into customer acquisition, whereas a prevention question would inquire about customer retention.”

The impact on the fund raising process is significant: entrepreneurs who were asked mostly promotion questions raised about seven times more than those who received prevention questions.

Circling back to my initial point, the overwhelming majority of founders responded to promotion questions with promotion answers, and to prevention questions with prevention answers.

This makes me wonder: do people have a natural tendency to respond in this way? If so, how can this be explained? Why are we so obedient to a question’s orientation? And does this occur in any situation or only under certain circumstances (for example, when the stakes are high)?

I’m wildly interested in this topic. If you happen to know about any psychological or neurological research on this, please send it my way!

A quick word on how female founders can close the gap in their next VC meeting. My first thought is that they could hugely benefit from techniques used in media training to reframe the question. Don’t respond too quickly and focus your answer on the Roman Column, as Jerry Weissman describes in his book In The Line of Fire.

I’ll write more on that in a later post.