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How You Can Avoid Answering Uncomfortable Questions

At some point it happens to all of us. Someone asks a pointed question that we don’t want to answer. Politicians have mastered this but what can the rest of us do?

The study below indicates that people are frequently unable to remember an initial question if a speaker answers a similar question. According to the study the worst thing you can do is answer a blatantly different question.

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).

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