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Study Finds Deflection Least Risky Option When Facing Tough Questions

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 18, 2019

When faced with a difficult question, people might tell the truth, demure, lie, or deflect; of these responses, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review argues, deflection seems to be the least risky one. 

Consider the question "Are you entertaining other offers?" in a job interview when you have none. Answering truthfully, "no," could affect your potential salary; demurring could make you seem not very trustworthy; and while lying could work, it is also very risky. Instead, a study found that another response, deflection ("Why? Are you making an offer?") carried the least risk. 

The study—conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business—involved 2,000 people posing as art sellers trying to get art buyers to make a purchase. Sellers were informed they could get a higher price if the buyer had other pieces from the collection. This meant the sellers would always ask whether the buyer indeed had other pieces. The buyers, who were research assistants following a predetermined script, responded in one of four ways: being honest, lying, declining to answer or deflection. 

When buyers were honest, sellers rated them at a high degree of trust, but also led them to higher prices. When buyers were evasive, they got a better price, but the sellers liked and trusted them less. When buyers lied, the sellers initially gave them better deals and trusted them more, but when their deception was revealed, the sellers were significantly less likely to ever negotiate with that buyer again. Meanwhile, those who deflected got better deals than honest buyers and were better liked and trusted than tight-lipped buyers. However, the researchers noted that this experiment was in the context of one-on-one interactions; in larger groups, people who are observing the conversation may spot the deflection, which could serve the diminish the benefit.