Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Artful dodger versus stumbling truth-teller

By Dave Bath - posted Friday, 23 January 2009

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.


Troubling indeed!

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:

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in Balneus on December 21, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

10 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dave Bath is a former single custodial dad (and grandfather since early 2007), has developed software for nearly 30 years (both open source and commercial), has an academic background in biomedical sciences, and has spent much of his commercial IT work in the fields of health, risk management, resourcing and finance. He blogs at Balneus.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Dave Bath

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Dave Bath
Article Tools
Comment 10 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy