Dodging Questions Earns No Penalty, Harvard Study Finds

  • Playing dodgeball.The Find: Artfully sidestepping questions or providing polished non-answers might actually get you further than giving a substantive but less than stylish answer, new research suggests.
  • The Source: A Harvard Business School Working Knowledge report on research by Todd Rogers, Executive Director of the Analyst Institute, and HBS professor Michael I. Norto.
The Takeaway: Coming off a marathon election season everyone is aware of the prevalence of question dodging and shallow but polished sounding answers. As common to CEOs and their spokespeople as they are to candidates, everyone also claims to be irked by answers that emphasize style over substance, but are we really? New research suggests that, whatever our conscious opinions, many people put more weight on delivery than the actual content of the answer. Question dodgers did particularly well in the study:
Sometimes, it seems, individuals who are asked a difficult question do not answer it, but instead provide distraction by answering something they would rather have been asked. And what is more, oftentimes their listeners either do not notice the verbal sleight of hand or do not mind it... "More troublingly, listeners preferred speakers who answered the wrong question well over those who answered the right question poorly," the authors note.
In a finding that will come as no surprise to political consultants everywhere, the researchers found "that people prefer, trust, and like a question-dodger who is smooth and sounds confident over a question-answerer who is unsmooth and stammers." If you're determined to get an answer to a question, Rogers offers some common sense advice:
Vigilantly remember the question you asked. If you immerse yourself in trying to understand the nuance of what the speaker is saying, you may lose track of your original question. It may be more pleasant to engage fully and go with the flow of a conversation. But if you want an answer, you need to make sure the speaker provides one.
The Question: Is question dodging and sophisticated BS on the increase?

(Image of heated game of dodgeball by akarmy, CC 2.0)