THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES this election year have given voters a glimpse of the verbal gymnastics deployed by candidates faced with difficult questions. At times their answers may seem filled with facts, figures, and interesting anecdotes, but not necessarily addressing the question that was asked, and often leading viewers to form inaccurate conclusions. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) associate professor Todd Rogers terms this practice ‘paltering,’ which he defines as “the active use of truthful statements to convey a misleading impression.”

Rogers and a team of fellow researchers have set out to gain a greater understanding of paltering and the impacts it has upon communication, by undertaking a series of studies and experiments aimed at determining how and when it works and when it doesn't. The results are to be published in an upcoming article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

“By using truthful, but misleading statements, those who palter may be able to effectively mislead others while justifying their behavior and maintaining a positive self-image. As a result, many deceivers may prefer to palter than lie by commission,” the authors write. “In addition, unlike lying by omission, paltering does not require the target to be complicit by failing to demand relevant information. That is, paltering may be a common tactic, because deceivers have abundant opportunities to palter, and because paltering is relatively easy to justify.” 

The authors find that paltering is a quite common form of deception, particularly in a negotiation context, that it may be effective short-term, but not necessarily long-term, and that it is “less aversive to negotiators than lying by commission and just as likely to be effective.”

Rogers and his co-authors argue that their research “introduces a novel framework for studying deception and creates the foundation for a substantial stream of future work.”

“Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others” is co-authored by Richard Zeckhauser, HKS; Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School; Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton School of Business; and Mike Norton, Harvard Business School.

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