Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way
Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton
Harvard Business School, Working Paper No. 09-048
Question-dodging is a common tactic used by politicians and public relations officials. Here’s how it works: If you don’t like the question you were asked, answer the question you wish you had been asked. Politicians are notorious for using this strategy during public debates, but does this evasive technique affect the public’s perception of the person speaking? The authors examined the efficacy of this technique by asking participants to listen to and view audiotaped and videotaped debates between two politicians, to rate them on four interpersonal dimensions, and to recall the initial question asked. The results were eye-opening. When the politician gave an answer that was completely unrelated to the question asked, it reflected poorly on his credibility. But when the politician dodged the question with an answer that was related to the question asked, many of the participants didn’t notice the dodge and even misremembered the original question. The authors also tested how style versus substance influences perception. Surprisingly, they found that speakers who answered the right question but fumbled through their answers (with uhs and ahs between sentences, for instance) seemed less credible than speakers who dodged the question but answered with style and confidence.
Question-dodging may go undetected when the answer is related to the question asked and is given with confidence and conviction.