Why Dodging the Question Works in Debates (and Job Interviews)

Last Updated Oct 8, 2008 8:17 AM EDT

Why Dodging the Question Works in Debates (and Job Interviews)

As you may have noticed in the recent electoral debates (but more likely didn't), there is something about our brain wiring that allows skilled orators to, well, slip us a fast one.

According to recent research out of Harvard Business School, listeners can develop a "conversational blindness" that blocks our ability to detect discrepancies between the question asked and the answer delivered -- as long the wrong answer is delivered smoothly and confidently.
"A successful dodge occurs when a speaker's answer to the wrong question is so compelling that the listener both forgets the right one and rates the dodger positively," write working paper authors Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton, who both have backgrounds in psychology.
But that's not all.
"More troubling, listeners preferred speakers who answered the wrong question well over those who answered the right question poorly."
Not that we are fooled all the time. If an answer is completely divorced from the question -- the candidate answers about terrorism when asked about education reform -- we snap back to reality and mentally punish the speaker. But politicians are often quite practiced at making the smooth transition from original question to desired message.

For more detail, read the fascinating Artful Dodging Trumps Open Evasion, Studies Show in the Washington Post.

Circumnavigation is Nonpartisan
By the way, this is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. All the candidates use this tactic, although the experienced senators McCain, Biden, and Obama are more skilled than the campaign newcomer Palin, according to a cognitive psychologist quoted in the article. Said Daniel J. Simons:
"In one case, she made it explicit she was going to switch topics. That was not a smooth transition, whereas if you had watched a McCain or an Obama or a Biden make that transition, they would not have said, 'I want to talk about taxes,' they would have answered the question in a way that led into taxes."
For many of us who have been coached on giving good job interviews, this isn't new info. When presented with a question you don't wish to answer, such as, "What is your biggest weakness in managing people?" you of course don't answer, "I tend to yell at people when I don't get my way." Instead, you find a positive: "Darn it, I'm probably too emotionally invested in helping my staff get the most out of their abilities."

Even so, I was surprised to learn about the degree to which many of us succumb to conversational blindness. And how do you come to grips with the possibility that some people may prefer hearing a wrong answer artfully presented rather than the right answer delivered haltingly?

(Direction image by POSITiv, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

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