Credit: Pixabay.

According to the researchers, politicians are some of the people who use paltering the most. Credit: Pixabay.

Jim Lehrer: “No improper relationship” – define what you mean by that.

President Bill Clinton: “Well, I think you know what it means. It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.”

Jim Lehrer: “You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?”

President Bill Clinton: “There is not a sexual relationship—that is accurate.”
—“NewsHour” With Jim Lehrer, January 21, 1998

This is one of the most famous exchanges in modern history and the subject is then-President Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinski. Later, after this interview, it was proven that Clinton had sex with Lewinski. However, Clinton didn’t tell a lie straightforward. His statement is technically true by using the present tense “is”. You see, his sexual relationship with Lewinski had ended months prior to the inteview.

That doesn’t make Clinton any less deceiving, however. What he did is was tell a truthful lie — this is known as paltering and a new study has identified it as a distinct form of deception, along with lying by commission and lying by omission.

Lying by commission is the active use of false statements and is by far the most common type of deception. Lying by omission is the passive act of misleading by failing to disclose relevant information. These two forms of deception have been the focus of most academic research, while paltering has been more or less ignored.

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When you’re lying and not lying at the same time

Harvard researchers have zoomed in on the behaviour to understand what are the risks and rewards associated with this form of deception, particularly in negotiations.

The team performed two pilot studies and six experiments. These examined whether laypeople recognize that paltering is different from two other common forms of deception; how often experienced negotiators palter and their evaluations of the ethicality of this tactic; whether people prefer it to lying by omission;  costs and benefits of paltering and lying by commission in a face-to-face negotiation; reputational consequences of paltering compared with lying by commission.

The studies which comprised 1,750 participants confirmed that most people can distinguish paltering as a distinct form of deception, as reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers also found that this is a common form of deception, though few people know how to put their finger on it. Over 50 per cent of business executives enrolled in an advanced negotiation course at Harvard Business School admitted they had paltered in some or most of their negotiations.

Moreover, the experiments suggest people prefer paltering to lying by commission because they view their action as more ethical. They’re essentially telling the truth, is what crosses their minds. However, counterparts have a different opinion on the matter rating palterers more harshly as if they had lied by commission.

“Negotiators who palter claim value but also increase the likelihood of impasse and, if discovered, risk harm to their reputations. This latter finding suggests that those who might view paltering as a (deceptive) strategy for claiming more value in a negotiation must be cautious. It may be effective in the shortterm but harmful to relationships if discovered. Paltering is less aversive to negotiators than lying by commission and just as likely to be effective,” the study concludes.

“When individuals discover that a prospective negotiation partner has paltered to them in the past, they are less likely to trust that partner and, therefore, less likely to negotiate with that person again,” said lead study author Todd Rogers of Harvard University.