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Have you ever lied or deceived by omission?

Last night I watched Senator Orrin Hatch grill the Acting Director of the IRS, Steven Miller. During the testimony Senator Hatch claimed that Miller had “lied by omission.” This got me wondering if I had ever lied or deceived by omission. How about you?

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Last night I watched Senator Orrin Hatch grill the Acting Director of the IRS, Steven Miller. During the testimony Senator Hatch claimed that Miller had “lied by omission.” This was in reference to how Miller had left out critical and pertinent information that would have helped clarify what actually happened inside the IRS. Miller insisted he had not lied, but Hatch pushed back and articulated why he thought Miller had lied by omitting information.

This got me wondering if I had ever lied or deceived by omission. How about you?

Ethical Principle

One of our Company’s ethical principles is “we are always truthful.” When I speak with team members about this principle I ask, “How many of you have raised teenagers?” I then remind the group about how often teenagers are masters at omitting information when questioned so they can later say, “I didn’t lie.” Usually everyone nods and smiles at this point.

When you withhold or “omit” relevant information, you aren’t being truthful. So the ultimate, ethical question is “how do I know which information is relevant and which isn’t?” And the answer is, “you know.”

How to Spot a Liar

This week I read an interesting Harvard Business Review article by Carmen Nobel called “How to Spot a Liar.”

This article, in which Nobel summarizes the findings of Deepak Malhotra, Lyn M. Van Swol, and Michael T. Braun, explores the “linguistic differences between lies, deception by omission, and truths.” This study interested me because it focused mostly on how people communicate during negotiations.

This research intrigues experts because it looks carefully at the communication differences between lying and “deception by omission” rather than just the difference between lying and truth-telling. They define deception by omission as “the willful avoidance of divulging important information, either by changing the subject or by saying as little as possible.”

The Ultimatum Game

To arrive at their findings, the researchers used a game played by econometric researchers called the Ultimatum Game. This simple game is between two people, the giver and the receiver. One party (giver) is given money to split with the other (receiver). The giver knows the total quantity of money and the receiver doesn’t. The giver decides and tells the receiver how much the receiver will get. The receiver can then accept or reject the proposal. If they reject, neither party gets anything. Thus the giver needs to guess how much to give the receiver to satisfy them.

For this particular deception experiment the researchers modified the game in three ways. First, the givers were promised that the researchers wouldn’t tell receivers how much money the giver started with ($30) and the giver was under no obligation to share this information. Second, if the receiver rejected the proposal they would receive a guaranteed payment of $7.50 and the giver nothing. Third, they would allow a two-minute conversation (videotaped) in which the receiver could ask the giver questions. It was this video-taped conversation that gave researchers insight into whether or not givers lied, deceived, or told the truth.

When they studied the film they looked for evidence of “strategic cues” and “nonstrategic cues”. Strategic cues are methods by which a liar intentionally tries to reduce the receiver’s feelings that they are being deceived. Nonstrategic cues are generally emotional and the giver may be unaware they are doing it. They discovered these four things:

  • 70% of the givers were honest and either told the receiver about the pot amount or split equally.
  • Strategic cues-
    a. Liars usually used more words during the two-minute interaction in a likely attempt to win over the receiver. (I picture a fast-talking used car salesman.) They called this “the Pinocchio effect” because the number of words grew as the lie grew.
    b. Givers who engaged in deception, on the other hand, used very few words and shorter sentences than the truth-tellers.
  • Nonstrategic cues-
    a. Liars used more swear words than truth tellers, especially when they were challenged. This is likely because when the brain is working so hard at lying it has a hard time regulating one’s behavior.
    b. Liars used more third person pronouns. This may be a psychological way for the person to distance him/herself from the lie.
  • On average receivers believed liars more than those who deceived by omission. Thus, omission is a very poor deception or lying strategy!

Personal Note

A few years ago I learned a valuable communication lesson myself. At that time, and now sometimes, I have a habit of saying “honestly” when I respond to a question to which I am unsure of the answer. During a consulting sales presentation to a prospective client (after we had built some rapport) the client smiled and said, “Since you qualify some answers with ‘honestly’ does that mean your other answers are not honest?” Although it was handled in an amusing way that day, it is feedback I have always remembered. I was pleased I was very transparent during that discussion; however, I became acutely aware of how important words are during negotiations.

There are some good lessons here about how we communicate and how others might perceive you. While I’m hopeful that lying is not one of your communication strategies, I’ll bet you have practiced deception by omission at least once. Now you know what to look for before you ever have to face Senator Hatch.

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