By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has gotten the most heat for being evasive in this season of political debates, but new research suggests that the contrast between her and the other top-of-the-ticket candidates has less to do with her lack of responsiveness than with the three senators' skill at dodging questions without seeming to.
When Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and debate moderator Gwen Ifill asked Palin to defend John McCain's stance on economic deregulation, she said, "I'm still on the tax thing because I want to correct you on that again. And I want to let you know what I did as a mayor and as a governor. And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record."
She then spoke about her efforts to cut taxes in Alaska.
Contrast that obvious dodge with Sen. Barack Obama's response to moderator Jim Lehrer's question about how the nation's financial meltdown would require him to scale back on his campaign promises.
"Well, there are a range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed," Obama replied. "We don't yet know what our tax revenues are going to be. The economy is slowing down, so it's hard to anticipate right now what the budget is going to look like next year. But there's no doubt that we're not going to be able to do everything that I think needs to be done. There are some things that I think have to be done."
And with that, Obama spent the next 334 words talking about spending increases and new plans. The transition from the unpopular subject of program cuts to the popular subject of new programs was artful, and it helped that Obama did not preface the about-face with so much as a "but."
"Palin was loosely on topic, but a couple of times she really bungled the pivot," said Daniel J. Simons, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied how people can miss things that are right under their nose. "In one case, she made it explicit she was going to switch topics. That was not a smooth transition, whereas if you had watched a McCain or an Obama or a Biden make that transition, they would not have said, 'I want to talk about taxes,' they would have answered the question in a way that led into taxes."
A review of the debate transcripts shows Obama, McCain and Biden all repeatedly dodging questions, adroitly transitioning from questions they were asked to questions they wanted to answer.
In a series of particularly relevant experiments, psychologists Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton recently showed that most people are extremely poor at spotting even dramatic discrepancies between questions and answers. They found the failure was especially acute when answers were semantically linked to questions -- for example, when a question about the war on drugs is parried by an answer about health care. Audiences seemed to notice dodges only when answers were completely unrelated to the question -- such as responding to a question about illegal drugs by discussing terrorism.
The psychologists found that irrelevant answers delivered fluently and with poise scored higher with audiences than answers that were accurate, on-topic, but halting. And when they had actors deliver the same answers to audiences -- once fluently and once with "ums" and "ahs" -- audiences judged the hesitant responses as intellectually inferior to the fluent ones.
Norton, at Harvard Business School, conducted an informal experiment during one debate: After the candidates gave their answers, Norton asked a group of friends to recall the question.
"They got a little bit better over the course of the evening, but by the time the politicians finished these two-minute all-over-the-place-answers, even people trying to focus forgot what question they were asked," he said.
Voters say they prefer candid politicians, but the experiments suggest politicians may pay a higher price for intellectual honesty than dishonesty.
"When [Palin] acknowledged the question and said, 'I don't want to talk about it,' it was intellectually honest, but it alerted people that she was not going to answer the question," said Rogers, a political psychologist and executive director of the Analyst Institute, a Washington-based group that studies voting behavior with an eye to helping liberals.
Norton and Simons suggest the reason audiences find it difficult to pick up on skillful dodges is that the human brain is not very good at keeping track of smooth changes, especially when distracted.
In another series of experiments, Simons has shown that when people are intently focused on something -- a basketball game on TV, for example -- large numbers fail to see a man dressed up in a gorilla suit walking across the screen. In another experiment, Simons stopped people on the street and asked for directions. Halfway through the answer, he arranged for two men carrying a door to walk between him and the person giving the answer. After the door passed by, Simons was gone -- and one of the people carrying the door was standing in his place. Half the time, people did not notice the person they were talking to had changed.