Politicians constantly evade the truth. Why can they get away with it? According to a recent study conducted at Harvard University, it’s because people have such terrible attention spans.
Behavioural scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School conducted a simple experiment to see when and whether people can detect a dodge. They recorded a speaker answering a question about universal health care (a controversial issue in the US). Then they attached the same answer to three separate questions: the original question about health care, one on illegal drug use, and a third about terrorism. Amazingly, subjects found the speaker just as trustworthy when he gave the response about health care to a question about illegal drug use – a related but different subject – as when he responded to the original question about health care. Moreover, when quizzed immediately afterward, almost none of the subjects could remember exactly what question had been asked.
Part of the reason for these findings, Rogers believes, is simply that humans have poor attention spans. Poor attention is “universal to all animals that we managed to study,” says Rogers. “Though we don’t realize it, we go through our lives detecting just the gist of what’s going on.