As political campaigns warm up for the 2012 elections, we'll tune into debates to learn where politicians stand on specific issues. Some will tackle questions head on, while others will dodge them entirely.
But the latter group — the dodgers — avoid providing direct answers better than we think, according to research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
In four studies, experts found that dodgers fly under the radar when they provide a similar answer to the question asked. A successful dodge leaves readers unsure of what the original question was by the end of the speaker's answer.
For example, a candidate at a political debate may dodge a question concerning illegal drug use by focusing on health care reform in his answer, leaving the audience under the impression the question was related to health care in the first place.
In the studies, 333 participants watched debate videos in which speakers varied in whether they addressed the question asked — with and without oratory skill, provided an answer to a similar question or gave an answer that was not relevant at all to the initial question. One study made it easier for participants to remember the original question by placing it in at the bottom of the screen.
The team discovered that participants had better views of speakers who successfully dodged questions than those who stuck with question asked but answered in an unskilled way. In addition, people who were reminded of the original question were better equipped to call out speakers' deceptive answers.
But other triggers redirect viewers' attention to dodges as well, especially when speakers stray too far from the original question. Ultimately, audience members' goals mattered the most: whether they wanted to assess the personality of the speaker or strictly examine his ability to answer a question about an issue.
According to the research, it's difficult to detect a dodge because viewers' efforts are focused on "social evaluation," or whether they have a liking for the person, rather than noticing fine-tuned deception.
Nearly 70 percent of participants were women recruited through a survey website, which may restrict generalizing the results of the study to all genders and ages.
And it's not just politicians who evade answering tough questions. Business representatives, institutional spokespeople and even unfaithful romantic partners dodge inquiries into their actions or motives, the authors write.
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