How Politicians Answer Questions Without Actually Answering

US Capitol Building
US Capitol Building (Image credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Research has confirmed that politicians are smooth talkers. A study found they evade answering tough questions during debates by addressing similar, though not identical, questions.

"When you pay attention to it, communicators are often evading questions that are asked," said Todd Rogers, a political psychologist and executive director of the Analyst Institute, a group focused on understanding voter communication. "Unless you are asked to pay attention to it, they can get away with it."

To determine how they get away with it, Rogers showed participants video clips of a simulated debate. The "candidate" was asked about universal health care or a similar question about the war on drugs. The actor answered both questions with a statement about universal health care.

Only 40 percent of the listeners could remember the original "war on drugs" question, compared with 88 percent of those who heard the "health care" question. If the listeners couldn't remember the question correctly, the speaker was determined to have successfully dodged that question, satisfying viewers with an alternate, though similar, answer.

When the question and answer were very different, for example, the health care statement in response to a question about the war on terror, listeners recognized the dodge and came away with a negative view of the speaker.

Debate viewers didn't notice the speaker dodging these similar questions unless they are specifically reminded of the question by placing it on the screen. Even when facing a dodge, participants could remember the original question 88 percent of the time if it had been on the screen, compared to 39 percent when it wasn't.

Researchers believe this could be because our brainpower is usually focused on interpreting the speaker's social actions — whether they think the person is honest or trustworthy — which distracts them from recognizing the dodge.

"As soon as we encounter a new person we analyze them socially," Roger told LiveScience. "Because this activity stops us from fully engaging in the answer, it facilitates question dodging."

This study was published in the April issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.