Most would agree that politicians are all-stars when it comes to responding to a question without answering it.
This practice of “artful dodging” and how to better detect it are discussed in an online article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
People typically judge a speaker with the goal of forming an opinion of the speaker, which can make them susceptible to dodges.
Experts say listeners’ inability to pay attention is another reason people fall for dodges. In the article, the authors use a venerable example in which people counting basketball passes failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit walking through the game.
Paying attention does make a difference, as dodge detection greatly increased when listeners were directed to determine the relevance of speakers’ answers with regard to the questions.
Another method to see through dodges is to display the text of the question to listeners as the speaker responded to the question. The ability to recognize a dodge more than doubled, from 39 percent without the text to 88 percent with the text.
“Given concerns that voters are uninformed or misinformed and the many calls for increased education of voters — from politicians and pundits alike — these results suggest that very simple interventions can dramatically help voters focus on the substance of politicians’ answers rather than their personal style,” said authors Todd Rogers, Ph.D., and Michael I. Norton, Ph.D., both of Harvard University.
The researchers conducted four different experiments with four separate groups of people totaling 1,139 men and women averaging 44 years old. In three of the studies, participants watched a video of a mock political debate and then responded to an online survey.
In the fourth study, participants listened to excerpts of a recording of a mock political debate and then responded to questions.
The study results indicated that people are frequently unable to remember an initial question if a speaker answers a similar question. Moreover, listeners rated speakers who answered a similar question just as positively as those who answered the correct question.
Listeners had the most negative reactions if speakers answered blatantly different questions or if they fumbled their words even while answering the correct question.
But dodges aren’t always bad, the authors noted, “such as when someone asks coworkers for their opinion on a new outfit.”
Nevertheless, while some dodges are harmless, the practice can “cause sought-after and relevant information to go unspoken, with little awareness and few consequences.”