Politicians – when you dodge the question, it makes you look dodgy

Party Leaders Appear On Live Televised Show 'May v Corbyn Live: The Battle for Number 10'
The research also suggested that we’re more likely to notice evasions by politicians whom we distrust

By Alex Fradera

Evasive politicians tend to pay for their slipperiness, according to new research in Journal of Language and Social Psychology. To study the art of the dodge, David Clementson of Ohio State University created videos of a male politician with no obvious party affiliation (he was played by an actor, but the participants thought he was a real politician), who was quizzed on a number of topics by a news reporter. In some versions of the video the politician played it entirely straight, but in others he dodged one of the questions, either by switching topics, or by giving a terse “no comment”. Either evasion led to the politician being rated as less trustworthy, both by a young group of 200 American university students, and a more seasoned group of 200 US citizens with an average age of 57.

Clementson also looked at whether participants’ political leanings made any difference. He found those who more strongly affiliated with the Republican party were less likely to notice the politician refusing to answer a question. However, compared to politically unaligned participants, both affiliated Republicans and Democrats alike were more likely to spot when the politician swapped topics, perhaps because once you notice this technique used by your political enemies, it begins to jump out at you. This study used an unaffiliated politician as the question-dodger; future work could present partisan figures to whether we turn a blind eye to slipperiness on our own side.

The results seem to suggest that observing a politician dodge a question influences our attitude about their trustworthiness. But it’s also possible that our existing attitude affects whether we observe the dodge in the first place – perhaps we’re less likely to spot dodges made by people we trust. This study design can’t answer this for certain, but Clementson conducted some further statistical analysis and based on this he thinks there’s some causality in both directions. If so, it’s all the more reason for us to pay attention to the facts of the matter, and not mere appearances: detect, or get dodged on.

Effects of Dodging Questions: How Politicians Escape Deception Detection and How They Get Caught

Image: Prime Minister Theresa May is interviewed by Jeremy Paxman during a joint Channel 4 and Sky News general election programme, 2017, in London.

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest