There’s a specific art to dodging a question. Non-sequiturs can be very easy to catch, so if you’re stuck in an interview, or participating in a debate in order to become the next President of the United States, you need to know how to twist a question you don’t want to answer in order to give the answer you want to give.A study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Todd Rogers of ideas42 and the Analyst Institute in the Journal of Experimental Psychology sheds light on the specifics of question-dodging, and why some are more susceptible to dodges than others.
What is a successful dodge?
To know how to execute a successful dodge, we must explicate what a dodge actually is. The study uses the following definition:
“Success in question-dodging entails listeners being less likely to recall the question asked of a speaker when the speaker answers a different question than when the speaker answers the actual question … A dodge is detected, on the other hand, when listeners recall the actual question asked despite the speaker’s effort to dodge it by answering a similar question.”
Veer, don’t turn
According to the study, “dodges can go undetected when a speaker responds to a question by offering an answer to a similar question rather than the actual question asked — provided that the listener’s attention is not directed to explicitly assess whether the speaker answered the question asked.”
For example, an interviewer may ask a subject about their least favourite part of a specific job. The respondent could successfully dodge the question by discussing how they adapted to a specific distaste while at their previous position, rather than harping on negatives that the interviewer asked about.
Remember the four Gricean norms
Paul Grice, the English language philosopher, surmised his theory of ‘conversational implicature,’ which posits that “in ordinary conversation, speakers and hearers share a cooperative principle.”
This ‘Cooperative Principle’ is based on the following four norms. Communication will contain
- the appropriate quantity of information
- be of truthful quality
- be delivered in an appropriate manner
- and will be relevant to the topic at hand
If a specific communication violates any of these four norms, it is said to be ‘deceptive.’ But Norton and Rogers note that if the dodger answers a question by adhering to these norms as closely as possible, the dodge will be much more successful.
First impressions are key.
When you first encounter your listener, their initial subconscious goal will to be evaluate you, asking themselves whether or not they like you or they can trust you. Because people’s first subconscious priority when meeting a new individual is to form a first impression of you, they become “vulnerable to failing to notice whether a speaker dodges a question.”
The truth can actually be more devastating than a dodge. If a respondent sticks to the truth, but lacks confidence and virility in their delivery, listeners are more likely to view the speaker in a negative light than a dodger who delivers a seamless answer. An experiment conducted for the study found that “speakers who made an effort to answer the correct question — but did so poorly — were rated less positively than those who made no effort to answer the correct question, instead answering a similar question well.”
Know your audience
The successful dodge relies on two key factors, one of which you have no control over — “the attentional goal of the listener and the similarity of the answer offered to the actual question asked.”
While one cannot explicitly control the attentional goal of the listener, if can be exploited.
The brain can only exert so much of their attention to a specific goal, as highlighted in Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ famous selective attention experiment — most people concentrate so hard on counting the amount of passes in the video, the fail to notice the gorilla that roams around.
The same logic applies to dodging a question. If the listener is not focused on catching the dodger, Norton and Rogers found that the listener is less likely to catch the deception. In their experiments, they discovered that listeners who were not given a specific goal when listening to a speaker detected a dodge 39 per cent of the time; listeners who were given a “social goal” detected a dodge 25 per cent of the time; and those that were asked to detect a dodge found one 69 per cent of the time.
Not all people are the same; when trying to deceive specific people one must keep in mind their foibles and fortes. Different abilities in working memory, inherent motivations, and the role of reconstructive memory (memories for past events that can be influenced by their own intervening cognitive functions and suggestions from others) are crucial factors which determine how one must frame a specific dodge, and the eventual success of a dodge.
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