HKS Authors

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What happens when speakers try to “dodge” a question they would rather not answer by answering a different question? In 4 studies, we show that listeners can fail to detect dodges when speakers answer similar—but objectively incorrect—questions (the “artful dodge”), a detection failure that goes hand-in-hand with a failure to rate dodgers more negatively. We propose that dodges go undetected because listeners' attention is not usually directed toward a goal of dodge detection (i.e., Is this person answering the question?) but rather toward a goal of social evaluation (i.e., Do I like this person?). Listeners were not blind to all dodge attempts, however. Dodge detection increased when listeners' attention was diverted from social goals toward determining the relevance of the speaker's answers (Study 1), when speakers answered a question egregiously dissimilar to the one asked (Study 2), and when listeners' attention was directed to the question asked by keeping it visible during speakers' answers (Study 4). We also examined the interpersonal consequences of dodge attempts: When listeners were guided to detect dodges, they rated speakers more negatively (Study 2), and listeners rated speakers who answered a similar question in a fluent manner more positively than speakers who answered the actual question but disfluently (Study 3). These results add to the literatures on both Gricean conversational norms and goal-directed attention. We discuss the practical implications of our findings in the contexts of interpersonal communication and public debates.


Rogers, Todd, and Michael I. Norton. "The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 17.2 (June 2011): 139-147.