How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question

Brett O'Donnell is a debate consultant who trains Republican candidates. He's worked with George W. Bush and John McCain, and for a short time earlier this year, he helped prep Mitt Romney.

O'Donnell is an expert on "the pivot."

If you have watched a debate, you have watched a pivot. "The pivot is a way of taking a question that might be on a specific subject, and moving to answer it on your own terms," O'Donnell says.

Take, as just one small example, a moment from the 2004 debate between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

You could, by the way, just as easily use an example from Kerry — both Bush and Kerry used pivots roughly the same amount of the time.

In this case, the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, asked President Bush about job loss. What, Schieffer wondered, would Bush say to someone who has lost his job? Bush began by promising to "continue to grow our economy," and then, subtly, changed course. Suddenly, Bush was talking about education, specifically his signature No Child Left Behind legislation. "I went to Washington to solve problems," he explained. "And I saw a problem in the public education system."

In two or three sentences, Bush had moved from a question about lack of jobs to an answer about education and a promise fulfilled. That is the power of the pivot. Which is why, in the age of debate coaches like O'Donnell, candidates in both parties use them all the time — "frequently," O'Donnell says, "better than 60 or 70 percent of the time, I would say."

The question is, how good are viewers at identifying these "pivots" — or, in the language of my people (journalists who ask questions), "dodges"?

How good are you?

There's a man at Harvard who actually has an answer to that question.

The Pivot And The Brain

Todd Rogers, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, got interested in looking at pivots, or dodges, or whatever you want to call them, after watching the 2004 Bush/Kerry debate I quoted earlier.

To him, the dodging on both sides of that debate was enraging, and he couldn't understand why others didn't feel the same.

To figure it out, he decided to do a study that tried to replicate what typical viewers see when they watch a debate.

He recorded a moderator asking candidates a series of questions.

In the first question, the moderator asks the candidates about health care in America, and the politician answered with a health care answer — a long disquisition on why Americans could not afford the care they needed.

Rogers then took that answer, and used it as a response to a totally different moderator question, this one about the problem of illegal drug use. So one set of people saw a candidate answering a health care question with a health care answer, while another group saw an illegal-drug use question answered with a health care answer. Essentially, the second group saw a relatively subtle pivot, from drug use question to health care answer.

Finally, he had a third group view the moderator asking a question about terrorism, which was answered again with the exact same health care question — a much more blatant shift.

At the end of this he asked the different groups two things:

Can you remember what question the person was asked?

How honest, likable and trustworthy is this person?

What he found was that when a politician answered the health care question with a health care answer, viewers could recall the question he was asked and thought the candidate was likable, honest and trustworthy.

When the politician pivoted a little bit, and answered the illegal drug question with a health care answered, they could not recall the question. But they didn't penalize the politician at all. "Listeners thought he was just as honest, trustworthy and likable as the guy who actually answered the question," Rogers says.

It was only when the politician answered the terrorism question with a health care answer that people could actually tell. "Everyone noticed, and they thought he was a jerk," Rogers says.

This led Rogers to the conclusion that people are capable of detecting dodges — but only if they're egregious. They don't seem capable of detecting subtle evasions.

Rogers believes this is because we have limited attention, and most of the time when we're watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation — do we like this person? Do we trust this person? — and only generally monitor content.

It's only when the speaker is wildly inconsistent that some deep mental wire is tripped. "It raises some flags, and we direct our limited attention to assessing whether this person is doing something unusual by failing to answer the question and offering an egregiously different answer," Rogers says.

This, Rogers believes, is why politicians can get away with dodging questions as much as 70 percent of the time.

"Politicians," he says, "are exploiting our cognitive limitation without punishment."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Film About Campus Sexual Assault Tells Survivors: 'You Are Not Alone'

Survivors Annie Clark and Andrea Pino brought a Title IX complaint against the University of North Carolina. "This is not about UNC," Clark says. "We're not doing this to vilify our institution."
NPR

When Food Is Too Good To Waste, College Kids Pick Up The Scraps

Millions of tons of food are wasted on college campuses around the country, and students are noticing. Some of them are now rescuing food to make tasty meals for the needy and compost for gardens.
NPR

Jeb's Rowdy Supporters Help Him Escape The CPAC Lion's Den

The former Florida governor's supporters shouted down his hecklers at his much anticipated appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
NPR

A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College, about the dress that has the whole Internet asking: What color is it?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.