We are a nation that claims to love frankness — we collectively want you to give it to us straight, no sugar coating, no polish, a desire reflected in both our political theater and our pop culture. You can see it in Donald Trump’s obsession with “political incorrectness,” with Hillary Clinton’s struggle to appear trustworthy; you can see it in the latest wave of disdain for the Taylor Swift PR machine, and in Jennifer Lawrence’s constant fart jokes.
But we also contain multitudes, which means that when the occasion demands, we can forgive — and even celebrate — an artful dodge, at times even mistaking it for something like honesty. And as a new case study in the International Journal of Sport Communication illustrates, we’re often pretty bad at distinguishing between artful hedging and the candidness we claim to crave.
The paper focuses on a press conference that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady held in January 2015 to address questions around “Deflategate,” the accusation that the Patriots had tampered with balls used in their AFC championship game that season. Last winter — after the Patriots had gone on to win the Super Bowl but before the NFL released its Deflategate report — the study subjects, a group of 105 college students, watched one of two versions of the press conference. Some of them saw a compilation of unedited snippets of the conference, in which Brady often started his answers with “I don’t know” before adding some additional explanation; the others watched a recording in which the “I don’t know”s were removed, so he appeared to launch right into straightforward answers.
Somewhat counterintuitively, when the participants filled out surveys after the videos, those who had seen the version without the “I don’t know”s thought Brady dodged more questions than those who saw him hedge. They also tended to think of him more favorably, even after study author David Clementson controlled for preexisting attitudes toward Brady, the Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks (who lost that Super Bowl), and the NFL in general.
On one level, says Clementson, a communications professor at the Ohio State University, it’s not actually that weird of a finding; it’s just an extension of the basic decency we typically extend to people in our day-to-day conversations — with a friend, a co-worker, a tourist on the street who stops you for directions. “Why should we think there’s necessarily anything wrong with [saying you don’t know something]? If I ask, ‘Is it supposed to rain today?’ and you say, ‘I don’t know, I have no idea,’ I’m not going to say, ‘How dare you? Why are you dodging my question?’” he says. “We give people the benefit of the doubt. They don’t have to answer all of our questions as directly as possible.”
On the other hand, though, Tom Brady isn’t a friend or a co-worker or a lost stranger — he’s a public figure, and people who haven’t interacted with him personally will nevertheless have opinions about his character. And in that regard, the paper is an interesting spin on a strange quirk of human psychology — that regardless of how much we say we love straight talk, we really love a good hem and haw. It’s called equivocation theory, the idea that vague nonanswers can be more persuasive or more palatable than straightforward replies.
Equivocation theory — also sometimes referred to as “strategic ambiguity” — is built in part on the work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who would later become famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. As a graduate student at Yale in the late 1950s, Zimbardo concluded from his research on ambiguity that people tend to prefer vague messages because they can more easily reconcile them with their existing beliefs, interpreting them whichever way is most convenient. Clementson’s case study, he argues, carries that idea to its logical conclusion: “You don’t get much more ambiguous and non-straightforward than ‘I don’t know,’” he says.
But taken this far, he adds, the concept doesn’t apply to everyone. Clementson usually focuses his research on politicians, who, he says, typically don’t get the same sort of leeway to admit they don’t know something (remember all the flak Hillary caught for saying she didn’t know how to wipe an email server?). A candidate can typically get away with vague speechifying — one experiment using snippets of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, in fact, found that people preferred the less-clear-cut answers over the concrete policy descriptions — but won’t be as easily forgiven for claiming a lack of knowledge.
“Sports figures, movie stars, entertainers — our tax dollars aren’t paying them, we aren’t electing them to represent us in certain matters,” he says, and so our expectations are lower than they are for politicians, college professors, or similar roles where authority comes from amassing and disseminating knowledge.
“The thinking is, if they don’t know the answer to that question, no one knows the answer to that question. They’re in a position of authority where they have to know the answer,” he says. “If the White House press secretary says ‘I don’t know,’ it’s like, if you don’t know, why are you here?” Besides, athletes and entertainers build their credibility by being good at what they do; candidates and elected officials, on the other hand, build their credibility on knowing things — which means it’s better to bluster through a tough question than it is to ’fess up.