People like politicians to give straight answers, so why don’t they?

If you have followed the recent election or the current Labour party election for a new leader, you will have noticed that politicians of all parties often do not answer questions from journalists. This video shows the contrast between a politician who does and those who do not brilliantly:


As far as I can tell, the politicians who do not answer questions do this for a reason and quite consciously. But it is very unnatural behaviour. In “real life”, it is hard to get away with it. And interestingly, voters seem to be turned off by it. So why do politicians keep evading questions?

The reason is that they are actually in a difficult personal position. Of course they know the answers, but they are worried that if they give a straight answer, they will be criticised by party members and colleagues, or they think it might limit their flexibility in future decision making. So, they have many things to think of when giving an answer, and their calculation typically is that not giving an answer will give the best return.

The cognitive process going on when evading answers is not straightforward. It takes training and mental control to answer this way. People who are very impulsive would probably not be able to do it well. Again, interestingly, part of the problems of the UK Independence Party with many new grass-roots politicians was that they often were somewhat more impulsively responding to questions. This meant that the party did not look like one with a united set of ideas, and it let to a number of scandals, and ultimately, a number of these people had to be fired from their positions.

There is a lot of selection going on in parties. Only the people who are really good in saying what they think the party wants them to say and saying things that they think the public might want to hear will be able to stay in the political game. Not everybody is capable of this. There are special psychological traits and mental abilities that are important for being a politician.

But, there is a big but! To really get at the top, to be the absolute leader, it is not enough to be good at evading answers and being able to sticking to the party line. For those positions, the ultimate winner might be someone who is giving straight answers. Straight answers that are not only straight answers, but also answers that reflect a vision that people want from a politician.

Now back to impulsivity. Are you impulsive? There are various simple psychological tests for this on my PsyToolkit website. You can try this one:


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