The science of debate strategy

In preparation for tonight's American presidential debate, please enjoy this Science Friday piece on the social psychology involved in successfully dodging a question. How do politicians slip into answering the questions they want to answer, instead of the ones you asked? What can you do to be more aware when this is happening?


  1. You know what science I’d like to have applied to the debates?
    What was on George W. Bush’s back during the Bush Kerry Debates?
    What it was, No matter what, could have told us something interesting about Bush.
    Was it a back brace? (Is he in pain? How bad is his back?)
    Was it a bullet proof vest? Does the president usually wear a bullet proof vest when he goes out? I’m could understand if this is a state secret at the time, but it’s years later. Is this now standard practice?
    Was it another medical device for his heart?

    Was it a inducer for getting audio to the president in a secure encrypted fashion  so that in case of a national emergency he will be in touch with the DOD command? 

    I would like to know the answer to that question.

    1. Well, I’m glad you asked me that. There are so many important problems facing America today. We need universal healthcare…

  2. Yeah, well.. the problem is that all the moderators are total wimps.  If they simply cut off the mike and said “you have to answer the question asked.” sooner or later the candidates might get the message.

    1.  I’ve always wanted to be a moderator to a political and end a question with, ‘And remember you are under oath.”  The reason is that it would remind people that their is nothing compelling these people to tell the truth.

      There are no consequences for lying and making up your own facts. And, with the sad state of our current media, they will rarely get called on a blatant lie in real time. The media person will go to the “other side” and get their comment but of course then it’s just “the other sides opinion”

      People on the left often think that, “If only people knew the facts!” but that isn’t always true. The truth DOESN’T always win out, especially when you have a lot of money going into creating a world where things like scientific truths are doubted because they might cut into the bottom line of a massive energy industry.

    2. The same research (referred to above) covered that. It turns out that if the candidate dodges the question, and the moderator pushes the point, it makes the audience trust the candidate MORE, not less, because the moderator gets perceived as rude, push, aggressive, and so people identify with the poor helpless bullied candidate.

      tl;dr version of the other key findings: if the candidate stalls for at least 10 seconds, they can answer any question they want, because the vast majority of the audience no longer remember what the question was, and the majority of the audience considers any well-rehearsed answer to be “probably truthful” and any answer where the candidate stops to think, even briefly, as “probably dishonest.”

      (Gods’ teeth, I hate neurotypicals some times.)

      The one thing that they found that worked was to keep the question on the screen, in text form, during the answers. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is answerable to both candidates and to nobody else, has so far said no to that, although the networks could do it themselves if they wanted to.

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