Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

Back in 2010, we posted on an article called Artful Dodging that talked about how politicians in particular, answer the question they prefer to answer rather than the question you asked. We talked about responding to that strategy in voir dire. Now, we have another article from the same group of researchers and this one is on lying by using the truth. Here’s how a press release describes paltering:

The ability to deceive someone by telling the truth is not only possible, it has a name — paltering — it’s common in negotiations and those who palter can do serious harm to their reputations, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Before talking about paltering specifically, the researchers start by saying that most research on lying has focused on what these researchers think is a false dichotomy: either lying by omission or lying by commission.

Lying by omission: This is the passive act of misleading by failing to disclose relevant information. In this sort of lying, if I am selling you a computer with a faulty hard drive, I will not mention the hard drive if you do not specifically ask about it.

Lying by commission: This is the active use of false statements—probably what we think of as common lying. In this sort of lying, if I am selling you a computer with a faulty hard drive, I will lie and tell you the hard drive is fine.

This paper identifies a third (and commonly used) strategy for lying. Paltering is perhaps a more nuanced form of deceit. The researchers say that rather than misstating facts (lying by commission) or failing to offer information (lying by omission)—paltering involves actively making truthful statements to create a mistaken impression. That is, someone who palters, uses truth to lie. If this is still confusing to you, the authors offer perhaps the most famous paltering example of recent times.

Here is a paragraph from the article commenting on the preceding YouTube clip. [Boldface font added for clarity.]

Referring to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, U.S. President Bill Clinton claimed “there is not a sexual relationship.” The Starr Commission later discovered that there “had been” a sexual relationship, but that it had ended months before Clinton’s interview with Jim Lehrer. During the interview, Clinton made a claim that was technically true by using the present tense word “is,” but his statement was intended to mislead: Jim Lehrer and many viewers inferred from Clinton’s response that he had not had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. We categorize Clinton’s claim as paltering: the active use of truthful statements to create a false impression.

You likely have to be pretty quick-witted to palter and after seeing paltering defined and watching this classic video example—many of us can likely think of people who have paltered with us and whom we no longer trust due to this behavior. In this series of experiments, participants preferred paltering to lying by commission but the consequences they assigned to those who paltered with them were just as harsh as those who lied directly by stating false facts.

As for liars who palter—they seem to deceive themselves by not accurately predicting just how harshly someone who discovers their deception will respond. Reputations are ruined and relationships are broken (just as they often are over lying by commission).

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the researchers found that paltering was often used in negotiations. Just as in personal relationships, the paltering party does not accurately predict just how much damage will be done if the deceptive paltering is discovered. Negotiations can be discontinued and those involved may be unwilling to enter in future good faith negotiations with the palterer.

The paragraph below is a selection (edited for brevity) from the article itself on paltering in negotiations.

Paltering is a common negotiation tactic. [snip] It may be effective in the short-term but harmful to relationships if discovered. Paltering is less aversive to negotiators than lying by commission and just as likely to be effective. [The researchers think this is part of why paltering is so seductive to the dishonest negotiator. They can always defend themselves by carefully saying “my statement was truthful”.]

[snip] Our findings have particular application to negotiations, where deception poses a unique challenge. Deception is prevalent in negotiations, influencing the negotiation process, negotiated outcomes, and negotiator reputations.

[snip] Our studies reveal that when detected paltering may harm reputations and trust just as much as does lying by commission. Quite possibly, however, negotiators who palter may misperceive their behavior to be more acceptable than it is and thus fail to forecast the harmful relational effects their actions trigger—if their paltering is subsequently detected.

In short, effective negotiations are no place for lies—whether they are by commission, by omission, or by parsing the truth to mislead—as in paltering. The researchers say paltering is common in negotiations but is also likely common in some long-term personal relationships and they suspect it is particularly common among politicians (at least among those bright enough to do it successfully).

Rogers T, Zeckhauser R, Gino F, Norton MI, & Schweitzer ME (2017). Artful paltering: The risks and rewards of using truthful statements to mislead others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112 (3), 456-473 PMID: 27936834

The image illustrating this post is what you would see in the dictionary if you looked up paltering. No, really. It is the photo Merriam-Webster uses to illustrate the word and we think the sly and conniving expression is perfect. If only people would telegraph their intent so obviously by looking like this when they are actively paltering—it would be much easier to catch a liar.