The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way

by Todd Rogers & Michael I. Norton

Overview — Individuals frequently attempt to avoid questions they do not want to answer, from politicians dodging reporters' requests to clarify their position on when life begins, to employees sidestepping their bosses' questions as to why they are late for the third straight day. Rogers, a recent PhD grad from HBS, and Norton, an assistant professor in the Marketing unit, suggest that when faced with unwanted queries, question-dodgers sometimes exploit conversational blindness—a phenomenon whereby listeners fail to notice when speakers respond to a different question than the one they are asked—by responding with answers that seem to address the question asked, but which in fact address an entirely different question. In the context of political debates, two studies demonstrate conversational blindness, exploring both the conditions that impact the likelihood of such dodges going unnoticed, and how speakers' successful—and failed—attempts to capitalize on conversational blindness impact listeners' opinions of them. Key concepts include:

  • Conversational blindness occurs in part because real-world conversations occur as a continuous ebb and flow, leaving little time for people to reflect on how every statement links to each previous statement.
  • A successful dodge occurs when a speaker's answer to the wrong question is so compelling that the listener both forgets the right one, and rates the dodger positively. In some cases, speakers end up better off by answering the wrong question well rather than the right question poorly.
  • These results add to the growing literature on people's surprising unawareness to changes in their environment.

Author Abstract

What happens when people try to "dodge" a question they would rather not answer by answering a different question? In four online studies using paid participants, we show that listeners can fail to detect dodges when speakers answer similar-but objectively incorrect-questions (the "artful dodge"), a detection failure that went hand-in-hand with a failure to rate dodgers more negatively. We propose that dodges go undetected because listeners' attention is not usually directed at a dodge detection goal (Is this person answering the question?) but rather towards a social evaluation goal (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 to determining the relevance of the speakers' answers (Study 1), when speakers answered egregiously dissimilar questions (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: in Study 2, listeners who detected dodges rated speakers more negatively, while in Study 3, 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 inattentional blindness. We discuss the practical implications of our findings in the contexts of interpersonal communication and public debates.

Paper Information