Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Artful dodger versus stumbling truth-teller

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-12-21

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 realize 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", (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 the question again).  From Roger’s research paper:

Interestingly, television networks have taken steps to curtail politicians’ efforts to dodge questions during political debates by posting the question asked of politicians for the duration of their answers.

So, Aunty, when will you start doing this?  And what about the commercial channels during the news?  Can the ticker-tape of headlines beneath Mel and Kochie be replaced by the question when they interview?  (Surely any questions are pre-planned, if not outright pre-vetted on commercial networks, and if speech recognition software can produce teletext a second or two later, then there is no real technical difficulty even for unplanned questions).

Better still, what about the core question being displayed during Question Time broadcasts?  As Aunty is planning a special channel to broadcast parliament live, I hope they’ll be thinking about how to include such a feature.

It isn’t just politicians, I’d like to see this happen whenever a question is put to business lobbyists (particularly Big Carbon) that have their own, rather than humanity’s, interests at heart.


3 Responses to “Artful dodger versus stumbling truth-teller”

  1. Dave Bath said

    This post (I really don’t know why, I don’t cosider it that good) made the cut to be included for consideration as one of the On-Line Opinion / Cluppo Troppo best posts from the Oz Blogosphere 2008.
    Here are the posts under consideration – and there ARE some gems I missed.

    Here is the copy of this post on On-Line Opinion, and here are comments on the post.

    Gotta giggle: this post STILL has no comments by anyone else here, but at OLO, they got infinitely more immediately.

    Hmmm…. maybe it was nominated not for quality, but to give the cited research and the idea wider airing in the hope action will be taken. Fat chance for the commercial media!

  2. If your starting point is that business is as much about advocacy as the search for truth, as this post suggests, then the respect for question dodging seems to follow logically. Answering questions as asked tends to lead to the truth, not to the position the spokesperson is advocating. Thus respect for successful advocacy together with some understanding of how advocacy works seems to imply respect for the techniques of successful advocacy, such as question dodging.

  3. […] back I (2008-12-21) mentioned an article from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge that showed people looked more favorably on artful dodgers who avoided questions, than a stumbling truth teller.  […]

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