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Laura Niemi, Ph.D.
Laura Niemi, Ph.D.

Linguistic Smoke and Mirrors in Leadership

Speaking vaguely has special implications for political leaders.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Along with Alek Chakroff and Liane Young, I've recently discussed (NYMag, Apr 7, 2017) their research (Cognitive Science, 2015) suggesting that when we use vague language to talk about own immoral acts, it not only helps us get off the hook—ƒ it might also be part of how we carry on believing we're great people.

Sure, a little self-deception probably prevents us from being miserable to the point of humiliating ourselves (Strohminger et al., in press). But Chakroff and colleagues (2015) also find that participants say they're more likely to actually pursue unethical acts when the acts are framed in indirect rather than direct terms. What's more, driving this is a perception that indirectly-framed acts are more morally permissible—but only for ourselves, not others.

Thus, this a self-favoring bias. And if we are interested in reducing it, we might benefit from allowing others to question us on what we mean when we vaguely talk about what we've done and intend to do.

The self-favoring biases of our elected leaders are particularly important: it's essential to the job description that elected leaders attempt to represent our collective voices in the least self-favoring way possible. Favoring the public good over private interests—the self—is what Donald Trump, for example, has promised to do, by taking an oath to serve as the President (more on the presidential oath here).

Donald Trump commonly uses an interesting indirect mode of communication: elliptical constructions (omission of words). For example, during the 2016 election season, when remarking on what could be done if Hillary Clinton were to be elected and decided to abolish the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution stipulating the right to bear arms, Trump remarked: "nothing you can do, folks—although the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is."

Consistent with the function of indirect speech to allow for plausible deniability (Pinker, Nowak & Lee, 2008), following accusations that he provoked violence, Trump released a statement providing an alternative interpretation: “2nd Amendment people” have “great political power”, the “power of unification” that could defeat Hillary Clinton. He's also a heavy user of ellipsis (the punctuation mark involving a series of dots ... described here in The Week).

Listeners who wish to point to underlying unethical intent are left with few precise statements to cite as direct evidence. Moreover, a lack of clear statements by the accused at the time of the event, combined with later denial that it happened, may lead accusers to doubt the evidence they do have: their memories as eyewitnesses, or as the actual victims. They may wonder, “What actually happened? What did I really feel?” Strategic induction of such an alternate reality has been discussed frequently lately as gaslighting.

Trump’s use of indirect language likely helps him not only to avoid serious sanction, but it also potentially makes it easier for him preserve a positive self-image, according to Chakroff and colleagues' findings (2015). The question arises: Is it advantageous for our leaders to maintain an inflated moral self-image through excessive use of indirect speech? If not, how could such a process be reasonably constrained?

DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)
A reporter raises his hand to ask a question as US Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Commander of US Forces-Iraq, delivers an operational update on the state of affairs in Iraq during a press briefing at the Pentagon, 4 June 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)
Source: DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)

Listeners, including reporters who may interrogate leaders in press conferences, can and do press for more direct statements. Yet because indirect speech appears to serve multiple functions, including preserving one’s moral self-image, this won't be easy. Indeed, recently, Trump went so far as to ban some news media sources—including The New York Times and CNN—from covering a non-televised briefing, citing worries that these reporters were “dishonest” and “fake” (Washington Post).

Of course, Trump also sometimes uses direct statements that make his intentions perfectly clear. For example, in 2015, Trump issued this direct statement: "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families” (CNN).

The science on indirect speech indicates that speaking indirectly might protect Trump from blame, and even enable him to live out some of his personal and controversial values. Making perfectly clear and direct propositions in which Trump repeats his intentions three times is a different, bold, and bombastic linguistic maneuver. Since direct speech leaves no room to wriggle out of condemnation if your hearer finds the proposition offensive, it conveys what Trump believes is defensible, or is prepared to defend.

For Trump, mixing direct and indirect speech may be partly strategic and partly habitual—like him, we've all got similar blind spots and similar linguistic foibles. But unlike Trump, each individual sentence we utter does not have enormous, global repercussions. It is important to consider what will come of letting Trump avoid speaking more directly. The current research suggests putting a gloss around harmful actions that many consider overblown will make them seem more morally permissible to him, which then will make him more likely to actually implement them. Because he took that Presidential oath, Trump's views on moral permissibility, their potential connection to the way he talks about harmful actions, and the likelihood he'll carry them out, are all public matters of practical, immediate significance.

A reasonable way to address these concerns is to support a free press and the clear separation of public and private interests in office-holders—ensuring leaders are challenged to give civil clarifications about their indirectly-framed actions and intentions.

Another essential part of the job description of elected leaders is that they manage being subjected to their constituents' moral idealizations. We want and need them to model being clear and open under the pressure of critical judgment, even as they are vulnerable to same cognitive errors, persistent self-deception, and wish to get their way as the rest of us. When a leader demonstrates the capacity to continually learn from mistakes and bridge divides through clear, collaborative conversation, this is an impressive demonstration of strength. It keeps us safer than walls and obfuscation.


Chakroff, A., Thomas, K. A., Haque, O. S. and Young, L. (2015), An indecent proposal: The dual functions of indirect speech. Cognitive Science, 39: 199–211.

Pinker, S., Nowak, M. A., Lee, J. J. (2008). The logic of indirect speech. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 105, 833-838.

Strohminger N., Newman, G., and Knobe, J. (in press). The True Self: A psychological concept distinct from the self. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

About the Author
Laura Niemi, Ph.D.

Laura Niemi, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology and Global Justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.