One of my pet peeves, and IMHO the root cause of many of the world’s ills, is the all-too-consistent victory of style over substance.
Recent publications from Harvard Business School investigate this in the context of spokespersons (and I’d include politicians among the most artful dodgers). This has been in my in-tray and blog out-tray for some time.
Listeners viewed successful question-dodgers as positively as speakers who actually answered the question they are asked.
In an interview Decoding the Artful Sidestep (HBS Working Knowledge 2008-11-17), Todd Rogers, one of the researchers, made the following remarks:
First, it is striking that participants failed to punish the speaker when he dodged the question asked. For example, the speaker paid no price for answering a question about the illegal drug use … with a discussion of why we need universal health-care insurance. This lack of penalty might explain why overt dodging appears so prevalent in politics (and in life).
The second interesting finding was that people prefer, trust, and like a question-dodger who is smooth and sounds confident over a question-answerer who is unsmooth and stammers.
The research was prompted by Rogers’ own experience listening to a speaker:
I didn’t even realise he was dodging until a question was asked about a topic I cared a lot about.
The full research paper Conversational Blindness: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way (PDF 171KB), (HBS Working Paper 09-048), includes the following:
More troublingly, listeners preferred speakers who answered the wrong question well over those who answered the right question poorly.
The researchers likened the way artful dodgers exploited similar attentional lapses to those used by magicians when redirecting an audience away from the hand doing the prestidigitation (something cognitive scientists are now investigating, a bit like optical illusions cast light, pun intended, on the way vision works according to the Christmas 2008 edition of New Scientist).
But what can be done about it with respect to politicians (and other slippery spokespersons)? It seems something can be done by TV current affairs programs, but while this is happening in the US, I haven’t seen it here, even on Lateline (although folks like Tony Jones are excellent at detecting the dodge and asking the question again). From Roger’s research paper:
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