On March 7, “Fox & Friends” reported that a Guantanamo detainee released by Barack Obama had been killed in an airstrike, then noted that “122 prisoners released from Gitmo have returned to the battlefield.” By creating the impression that they’d all been released by Obama — in fact 113 had been released by George W. Bush — they appeared to be “paltering”: deceiving others with the creative assembly of accurate statements.
The ruse worked: President Trump immediately tweeted, “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” But while paltering often succeeds, it’s costlier to palterers than they believe, according to new research.
Although paltering occurs in all realms of life, researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government focused on its use in negotiation. In one of eight studies to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, study participants pretended to sell a used car on eBay. They answered the buyer’s question “Has this car ever had problems?” with a response selected from a list supplied by the researchers.
The palter was to skip the fact that it had broken down twice in the last year, instead saying, “This car drives very smoothly and is very responsive. Just last week it started up with no problems when the temperature was 5 degrees Fahrenheit.” The outright lie would have been: “This car has never had problems.” Researchers learned that car sellers perceived paltering as more ethical than lying, and thus used it more.
In another study, half of surveyed executives said they paltered in more than “a few” of their negotiations, versus a fifth who said they actively lied more than a few times. Consistent with this discrepancy, executives viewed the behavior as more honest than lying.
Paltering allows people who consider themselves honest to deceive others while getting the same results that lying would. In a third experiment, participants in a pretend real estate negotiation performed just as well when they paltered as they did when they lied. Their successes didn’t come without costs, however. When the deception was discovered, negotiation partners deemed palterers as untrustworthy as liars.
Another study found that victims saw palterers as less ethical than palterers saw themselves. We have a “broken mental model” of paltering, the researchers have concluded, seeing this behavior as honest when others do not.
One occasional advantage of paltering over lying is plausible deniability: You can blame any misunderstanding on the listener. Without knowing the speaker’s intentions, it’s difficult to diagnose paltering with certainty says Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist at the Kennedy School and the paper’s lead author. Few examples are as clear as Bill Clinton’s response when asked if he’d had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky: “There is not a sexual relationship — that is accurate.” (Note the slick use of present tense.)
So how can you avoid falling victim? “If you ask a specific question, that specific question should be answered, not a variant of it,” Rogers says, even though insistence on clarification “often makes you look like a jerk.” Paltering relies on our tendency to trust others and not cause a scene. “It’s pretty amazing how much you can get away with because of people’s truth bias,” says David Clementson, a researcher at Ohio State University’s School of Communication, who was not involved in the study. “Paltering totally takes advantage of that, diabolically and deceptively.”
Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”