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Outthinking the Question

Serious critical discussions are always difficult. Non-rational human elements such as personal problems always enter. Many participants in a rational, that is, a critical, discussion find it particularly difficult that they have to unlearn what their instincts seem to teach them (and what they are taught, incidentally, by every debating society): that is, to win. For what they have to learn is that victory in a debate is nothing, while even the slightest clarification of one’s problem – even the smallest contribution made towards a clearer understanding of one’s own position or that of one’s opponent – is a great success.

— Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework (p. 44). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added

Outthinking the question is a common evasive and manipulative rhetorical trick that often goes unnoticed. Being able to identify it and defend against it makes you a better debater in search of truth.

The trick aims at winning a debate by anticipating some purpose behind an interlocutor’s question. When the honest answer to that question might lead the discussion in an unfavorable direction, a response to a different question or statement is usually given in hopes that the replacement goes unnoticed (examples follow). This tactic can quickly turn an open, critical discussion into a closed and illogical one. It often results in lies.

Replacing questions seems to be such a common consequence of outthinking them that, in this article, I typically include this particular consequence whenever I speak of ‘outthinking the question’. But such replacements are not the only consequence (more below).

Kevin Samuels identified and named this discussion tactic on his podcast The Kevin Samuels Show. In the episode ‘The REAL Deal with High Value Men?’ (at 1:47:15), he told a woman calling in to his show to stop outthinking the question. Samuels was an image consultant whose podcast focused on dating and relationships; people would call in to ask for relationship advice. Since he asked them tough questions, many of his callers employed this dishonest tactic in ‘self-defense’ (though, from a truth-seeking perspective, the tactic ended up hurting them more than it helped them).

In the below instance, the caller was a 35-year-old female with two children looking for a new husband to give her two more children. Below, I paraphrase parts of the exchange and add her replacements for his questions in italics. You might be surprised how often this happens and how sneaky the replacements can be!

Samuels: Let’s say you find a new husband. Once you’re married to him, do you want to have to work to pay significant bills after you’re pregnant with your next child?
The caller hears: would you like to continue working?
Caller: Yes, I would like to continue working.

Samuels immediately notices that she replaced the question:

Samuels: No, I asked whether you’d want to have to work, not whether you’d like to.
Caller: I don’t want to have to work, no.
Samuels: What percentage of the family’s financial load do you want to have to be responsible for?
She hears: how much are you willing to compromise on your previous answer in an effort to find a husband?
Caller: I’m willing to shoulder 50% of the family’s financial load. I feel like that’s reasonable.

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