Monday, November 17, 2008

conversations are like driving: steering and blindspots

When I was in college, I ran rats. Suffice it to say, it was eye-to-eye with one such subject when I committed to social psychology. Interestingly, another labmate, Todd Rogers, sort of did the same. I came across some of his research on conversational blindness today - "answering the wrong question the right way." Now we know why this is advice often given to job interviewees: it really does lead to better outcomes.

Todd and his colleague found that "question dodgers," who basically answer a question they would rather be asked, typically get off scot-free. Furthermore, when they offer up an 'answer' with confidence, people prefer, like, and trust them more than someone who more genuinely attempts to answer the question. You can see Dan Gilbert in Todd's legacy (i.e. cognitive biases, logical fallacies, errors in judgment). Fascinating research! Yet another example of what cognitive misers we are-- unaware of so many nuances, constantly taking mental shortcuts.

In an HBS interview, Todd sums up some of his findings by saying that

It is striking that participants failed to punish the speaker when he dodged the question asked. For example, the speaker paid no price for answering a question about the illegal drug use problem in the United States with a discussion of why we need universal health-care insurance. This lack of penalty might explain why overt dodging appears so prevalent in politics (and in life).

The big finding is that people rely on style as a shortcut to substance. In Todd's words, "style blinds us to the lack of substance." It really makes you question what authenticity is, or rather which aspect of authenticity is most important: saying what you know well, or trying your darnedest to answer a question you really don't have anything to say about. It seems we all just want to hear something, and aren't so picky as to what... Does this remind you of the positive effect of attention?

Todd seems to focus on this phenomenon as evidence of our natural ability to be flexible in social interactions. It's true, I suppose we are efficient enough perceivers that we'd rather pursue value in a conversation than force an answer we know isn't there.


vic said...

Great post! Loving the blog! One other blind spot I've noticed is if you respond to someone by just repeating what they've said, they never seem to notice you're just parroting it back...they'll act like you have made a really good point.

kate said...

Thank you, Vic! Sometimes that positivity is because of linguistic style matching-- it's a subtle form of flattery (of course parroting back content is pretty flattering too, overtly so). Interestingly, like the research here, we found that linguistic style matching is a natural human tendency that operates at a subconscious level. We tend to do it to make interactions more smooth.