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.
recorded a moderator asking candidates a series of questions.
In the first question, the moderator asked 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.
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.
"Listeners thought he
was just as honest, trustworthy and likable as the guy who actually answered the question," Rogers
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
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.
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
believes, is why politicians can get away with dodging questions as much as 70 percent of the time.
says, "are exploiting our cognitive limitation without punishment."