Subtext Beats Text

We typically pay more attention to subtext than to text. For example, when we hear someone answer a question, we usually won’t notice if they actually answer a somewhat different question than the one that was asked. Oh we can tell the difference, if we pay attention, but we are usually too busy considering social subtext:

What happens when speakers try to “dodge” a question they would rather not answer by answering a different question? In 4 studies, we show that listeners can fail to detect dodges when speakers answer similar—but objectively incorrect—questions (the “artful dodge”), a detection failure that goes hand-in-hand with a failure to rate dodgers more negatively. We propose that dodges go undetected because listeners’ attention is not usually directed toward a goal of dodge detection (i.e., Is this person answering the question?) but rather toward a goal of social evaluation (i.e., 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 [or if listeners were given no goal] toward determining the relevance of the speaker’s answers, when speakers answered a question egregiously dissimilar to the one asked, and when listeners’ attention. … When listeners were guided to detect dodges, they rated speakers more negatively, and listeners rated speakers who answered a similar question in a fluent manner more positively than speakers who answered the actual question but disfluently. (more)

This raises the question: why is modest question-evasion so often tolerated in TV and radio interviews? Three possibilities:

  1. Interviewers are usually too stupid to notice modest evasions.
  2. Interviewees would refuse to appear on shows that highlighted evasions.
  3. Viewers would avoid shows where interviewee evasions were highlighted.

I lean toward #3 — viewers may watch such shows to affiliate with high status interviewees, but such affiliations seem weaker if interviewee evasions are challenged. Reporters seem plenty smart and attentive enough to notice the evasions, and interviewees seem eager enough to be interviewed. Viewers are the picky party.

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  • Hugh

    For an alternative view,

    Frontline (10 mins)

  • 2 seems more likely to me than 3. Viewers seem enjoy the odd occasion when prestigious interviewees make themselves look silly. They even watch shows devoted to making fun of high status people.

    That interviewees are eager to be interviewed generally doesn’t say much because they are in little danger of being called out.

    But perhaps interviewers like to affiliate with interviewees, or at least not be the one socially challenging them.

    • I agree with you and so does Jeff Greenfield, at least in general. He says that most reporters are afraid of appearing biased, so they won’t challenge a candidate for saying something false, misleading, or evasive.

  • This is all premised on the assumption that an interview is more like an essentially hostile legal deposition rather than an essentially cooperative conversation. That suggests a fourth possibility why a “dodge” (or to put it more neutrally, a “redirection”) usually passes without comment:

    #4. The interviewer and the viewers don’t care if you answered the exact question as long as you’re saying things that are interesting.

    If you’ve ever been through “media training” with a publicist at your university or foundation, they always tell you some variation on “if the interviewer asks you a stupid question feel free to steer it back towards something more interesting to you, the interviewer won’t mind as they are really only trying to goad you into talking.”

  • Some UK interviewers stand out to this US listener because they pounce on a dodge to a degree US interviewers do not. Sorry vague but no linkable citations are at hand.

  • Buck Farmer

    Personally, dodge’s irritate me to no end, so I am banking on (2).

    To make (2) more palatable, consider the opposing forces of status affliation and overt egalitarianism (to maintain forager tribes).

  • Max Bolingbroke

    Jeremy Paxman interviewed many high status interviewees, and is famous for pointing out their dodges. Amusing video here:

    • Alan

      Great example. You beat me to it!

  • IVV

    I’m definitely leaning toward #2. When the artful dodger is called out, the interview starts looking like this:

    Journalist: “Why were taxes raised last year, when you said you would lower them?”

    Politician: “Look at the great successes we’ve seen in reducing corruption.”

    J: “You haven’t answered my question. Why are taxes higher?”

    P: “I’ve reduced spending on garbage removal by 50%.”

    J: “That doesn’t explain why taxes are higher. Why?”

    P: “There’s all this wasteful spending out there, and I’ve put a stop to it, just like I promised.”

    J: “But taxes are still higher. Why?”

    P: “Look at the dancing monkey. This interview is over.”

    • billswift

      That’s the classic libertarian critique of journalism. They have to soft-pedal anything having to do with the police, bureaucracy, and politicians in order not to lose access. Never believe anything any journalist says about anything having to do with government; you need to interpret it.

      • IVV

        I’m not sure I’d call it libertarian in this case. Certainly, “interpreting” what is said exposes the original statement to the same level of bias and “believing” the statement.

        What I see is that if you catch a person dodging your question, you can be reasonably sure that they are interested in dodging the question. Ask it again, and you only make them dodge again. So either you’ll start a futile run-around like Michael Moore asking, highlighting the dodge, asking again, highlighting the dodge again, but never actually learning anything, or you just drop it until you can trick the interviewee into revealing what he/she is hiding, which might be never.

        So, you don’t bother the interviewee with a morality play that makes no one look good. You look for the answer in a way that doesn’t require the interview.

        Alternately, I suppose you get Mr. T to just intimidate the target into answering your questions, but you can’t always do that. I would totally watch it, though.

      • Khoth

        I think you added an unnecessary “about anything having to do with government” to your comment there.

  • jb

    viva le Daily Show! Jon Stewart calls people on their evasions, and the viewers love it.

    Which suggests to me its #1.

    • viva le Daily Show! Jon Stewart calls people on their evasions, and the viewers love it.

      Though better than Barbra Walters, I find Stewart to be pretty much a kiss ass with high profile guest. I saw John Stossel give a tough interview once, I think it was with Bruce Babbitt, the guest got up and pulled the microphone off and stormed off. I do not think Stossel ever got that high a profile person to sit for an interview again.

      On the topic I think that it is a combination of 2 and 3.

  • Tom

    I lean heavily towards #2. Interviewees, particularly high-status ones, tend not to be financially compensated for their appearances, so their compensation for doing the interview is the interviewer’s cooperation in using the interviewer employer’s control of the communications medium to send the interviewee’s preferred message.

    This explanation works better for the US because even before the cable explosion, interviewees had a choice of outlets. In the UK, the BBC’s extremely strong market presence in both TV and radio may have permitted its interviewers greater leeway than the US permitted.

  • Michael Wiebe

    I recall a Mike Munger column on interviewing techniques for academics, where he said that interviewers expect academics to answer a different question, simply because the academics are the experts and they know what is relevant and not.

  • Aron

    It doesn’t strike anyone else as silly to pick one of these three?

  • Daublin

    What Gabriel said. Conversation is usually a cooperative activity.

    Other considerations:

    1. It raises considerable social awkwardness to explicitly note people’s dodges. The conversation easily collapses.

    2. Minds never change right on the spot, anyway. If you are really trying to convince someone, let their dodge slide and concentrate on raising your own points.

  • Drewfus

    What’s causing the motivation to dodge? Could it be related to optimism bias? If yes then modest question-evasion is so often tolerated, because otherwise all the interviewees would be depressed.

    Are dodgers concious of their dodging? Not necessarily.

  • Having status is mostly having status for having status. Like the way that Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. Having done or accomplished important things has nothing to do with it. Pretending to be important with enough sincerity that people believe you are important is what matters. That is why actors and actresses are among the highest status individuals. They are really good at pretending to be someone they are not.

    A media interview is about trying to increase status, not about trying to convey an understanding or a representation of reality. If you can not answer the interviewer’s questions, you can gain status by dissing him/her, unless your non-responsiveness shows pretty severe ignorance.

    What did Newt Gingrich say recently about the “gotcha” media? Gingrich was answering questions honestly, that the Ryan Medicare plan was nonsense and the rest of the GOP didn’t like his honesty so he backtracked, showing that the only “status” that Gingrich cares about is the status inside the GOP echo chamber.

  • anon
  • Bryk

    I don’t think it’s 1, 2 or 3. Every interviewer on TV and radio has a limited time slot for a guest – even on shows with seemingly extravagant segment lengths like PBS and NPR – and if the show host is well prepared, there’s a long list of possible questions that have been composed and ordered to “cover” the topic at hand. Broadcast media involves a lot of advance planning, and even a simple interview has to achieve some key objectives like bringing out facts and opinions while keeping the conversation “moving.” The savvy host knows that even an evasive answer will do a basic job of “covering” the topic from the interviewee’s perspective. That answer is likely to be evasive if the interviewee is a politician and less likely to be so if the interviewee is a subject matter expert. If a show host wants a non-evasive answer, he can always book a different type of guest (e.g., The Diane Rehm Show on NPR, which relies more on experts than politicians as guests).

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