Politicians are especially deft at deflection, which is the tactic of answering a question with a question that steers the conversation in a different direction. It’s not an easy skill, but former President Donald Trump mastered it, according to Wharton operations, information and decisions professor Maurice Schweitzer.
Schweitzer, whose research focuses on negotiation and communication, pointed to Trump’s confrontational style with reporters during press conferences and frequent refusal to give direct answers.
“In the 2016 presidential campaign he repeatedly was asked, ‘Are you going to release your taxes?’ And he would reply, ‘What about [Hillary Clinton’s] emails,’” Schweitzer says. “That’s deflection, and it worked.”
Schweitzer and T. Bradford Bitterly, a management professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, are co-authors of a study titled, “The Economic and Interpersonal Consequences of Deflecting Direct Questions,” which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It’s the first study to examine the costs and benefits of answering a question with a question, compared with answering with the truth, a lie, or declining to respond (“I prefer not to answer that question.”)
Across four experiments, the researchers found that deflection can help people maintain a good impression with their conversational partner, avoid revealing potentially costly personal information, and safeguard them from the inherent danger in lying.
“Deflection provides a method of avoiding answering questions that causes your counterpart to think that you are trying to learn more information instead of hiding information,” Bitterly says. “In doing so, it is less interpersonally costly than declining to disclose and less risky than deception.”
The study has practical implications beyond the political realm. Deflection is a tool that can be wielded during business negotiations, such as a sales deal or a job interview, where information-gathering is critical to the outcome. If a hiring manager asks a job candidate to disclose their current salary, for example, the candidate could use deflection rather than answering truthfully or declining to share the number. In one of their experiments, the scholars found that a humorous deflection to the salary question helped a job candidate maintain a favorable impression with the hiring manager while not giving away crucial information that could have lowered his salary offer.
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