People trust eloquence more than honesty,” conclude Harvard scholars Michael Norton and Todd Rogers after researching how people react to speakers who “artfully” dodge questions put to them.

Rogers and Norton showed subjects different videos of a political debate. In the first, one of the candidates answered the question asked. In the second, he dodged it by answering a similar question. In the third, he dodged it by answering a completely different one. When the candidate answered a similar question, subjects failed to notice the switch. They also liked him better if he answered a similar question well than if he answered the actual one less eloquently.

The only caveat is that the question-dodger has to be good at it. Apparently the best current example of this is Hilary Clinton. Previous experts in the field include Ronald Reagan. Sarah Palin was also singled out for a unique form of question-dodging. She actually prefaced her answers by telling her hearers that she was going to answer a different question!

But rather than advocating training schools in question-dodging for public figures, Norton and Rogers are disturbed by their findings:

It’s troubling because we’d like to think honesty would be rewarded, but in fact, people who deftly sidestep questions are rewarded more than people who answer honestly but ineloquently. A leader could rationalize that it’s better to dodge well, because his intentions are good and he needs people to like and trust him. But I would say that if you’re trying to advance a public discourse, you have a responsibility to not dodge questions.

Apart from emphasizing personal responsibility, another suggested remedy is to post the question on the TV screen as the answer is given. Also, we can be on the lookout for transition devices that prime the listener to accept what comes next as relevant. The first 10 words of an answer are key to creating an artful dodge. You may hear phrases like “That’s a good question,” or “I’m glad you asked that.” Also, long transitions make it more difficult for hearers to link the question and answer.

So, what’s the takeaway for pastors and parents? Well, first of all, we must recognize how sadly gullible and dangerously vulnerable fallen human nature is. We and those we pastor and parent are so easily deceived and led astray. How sad that people like and trust question-dodgers more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish!

Second, we need to do more than tell the truth in the pulpit and in the home. We need the Spirit of Truth in addition. If people usually prefer polished dodges to unvarnished truth, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give discernment and to keep us and our congregations and families in the truth and away from error.

Third, we must learn to recognize the sin of using skillful dodges when speaking with people. This is such an easy habit to get into, especially when it is so apparently successful. May God help us to be honest rather than merely eloquent.

Fourth, in a world so full of falsehood and deceit, we surely come to love Jesus more. He is the one person in human history we can totally trust, one who not only always spoke the truth, but who could honestly say, “I am the Truth.”

  • Richard Gelina

    I have recently begun to notice the tell-tale signs of this art form (if it may be called that). But I had not thought to make the application to our interactions within the Church. Thank you for your post.