By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It seems like the simplest piece of witness advice imaginable: Answer the question. But, at least judging by the number of times a witness doesn't quite answer the question, it is a little more complicated than that. For a variety of reasons, many witnesses end up dodging the question. That can be a purposeful (and unwise) strategy, or more likely, it can be accidental or more apparent than real. But in nearly all cases, a perceived dodge is going to be more harmful to credibility than an honest answer would have been. Even when it is an answer that hurts you on some level, you do less harm in the end by giving the honest answer without a dodge. When the lawyer on the other side has to fight for you to just focus on the question, or pursue you for an answer, then it just serves to highlight the bad fact that you're desperately trying to avoid.
When an audience believes you're dodging, that hurts your credibility. Now, recent research (Clementson, 2017) shows that as well. The study in the current issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology looked at a younger sample of university students as well as an older sample outside the university. Each group was shown a video of a politician either answering or dodging a question by changing topics. The results? For both groups, they're exactly what you would expect: The perceived dodge reduces the trustworthiness of the speaker. The author, David E. Clementson of Ohio State University, believes that this is because people speculate and ruminate on the reasons for an apparent unwillingness to answer the question. In short, as summed up by the title of a write-up of the study in Research Digest, "When you dodge the question, it makes you look dodgy." In this post, I'll look at some of the ways a witness can avoid looking dodgy by avoiding the purposeful, the accidental, and the apparent dodge.