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When ‘I don’t know’ works to your advantage

Your boss emails you with a complex problem with no obvious solution. Your son asks you one of life’s major questions. Your friend is asking for your perspective in an area where you’re considered an expert.

When you’re not sure how to answer, a simple, common response — “I don’t know” — may make all the difference in how the questioners see you.

An Ohio State study has found that admitting your ignorance may lead people to trust you more in some situations, and researchers expect that holds true for politicians and sports stars.

The finding comes from a study of star New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who became the butt of late-night TV jokes when he repeatedly denied knowing anything during the “Deflategate” scandal of 2015.

While comedians found fertile ground in Brady’s answers, people generally trusted him, said Ohio State’s David Clementson, who did this work as a doctoral student in communication at Ohio State.

“People thought Brady was providing better answers and felt more goodwill from the sports star when he answered the questions by saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have no idea,’” said Clementson, whose research was published in the International Journal of Sport Communication


For Clementson, Brady’s news conference was a chance to investigate what happens to people who avoid direct answers when presented with tough questions on the spot.

While the findings may initially seem surprising, they also make intuitive sense.

In the real world, we generally believe people when they say ‘I don’t know’ to a question we ask them. We don’t hold that against people. Why would it be different for sports stars and politicians?

The results also fit with the widely accepted “Equivocation Theory,” Clementson said. This theory states that when a speaker is asked a tricky question in which a direct answer would offend a big portion of the audience, it is best to give vague answers.

So if you find yourself in a sticky situation and you don’t know an answer — just say so. The results might be more positive than you think.