Next month, President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney will face off on national television on four separate occasions to share their ideas for governing America and explain why voters should chose them.
While it’s not clear how many Americans make their voting decisions based on the debates, we do know they are an important part of the campaign. So I was thrilled to find some evidence on how to consider the candidates responses critically.
Todd Rogers, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard University, is among a growing group of researchers applying social science to issues effecting political campaigns. (We’ve written about his work on get-out-the-vote phone calls.) He wanted to address the issue of how candidates respond when get asked a question that they don’t want to answer – and whether the public notices when politicians dodge a question by talking about a different topic instead.
Rogers and his colleague Michael Norton, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, designed a study to determine under what conditions people can get away with dodging a question, and under what conditions listeners can detect what’s happening.
In their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they recorded a speaker answering a question about universal healthcare. Then they paired that answer with three separate questions: the correction question about health care, one about illegal drug use and another about terrorism. They showed the three question-and-answer pairings to separate groups of people and asked them to rate the truthfulness of the speaker.
Their research found that when the question and answer sounded somewhat similar – such as in the case where the speaker was asked about drug use but responded about healthcare – the audience rate the speaker as trustworthy. (In fact, most of the people who head the answer about illegal drug use couldn’t even remember the question.) But when the answer was very clearly addressing a different topic – such as when the speaker was asked about health care but responded about terrorism – the audience detected the dodge.
In another part of the study, Rogers and Norton used the same questions and answers, but posted the question on the screen in for some viewers. They found viewers who saw the question posted on the screen while the speaker answered were more than twice as likely to detect a dodge, even in subtle cases.
Rogers advocates for posting the questions on the screen during the presidential candidates debates, although he concedes it’s unlikely to happen this year.
You can hear an interview with Rogers and learn about other research on political campaigning in last week’s episode of NPR’s Science Friday.