Using the truth to mislead (paltering) feels less bad than lying, but will cost you in the long run

Sneaky scheming young man plotting somethingBy Alex Fradera

Work is getting stale, and you’ve recently been courted by an exciting new company for a great role, the one drawback being a slight pay cut. Before you’ve made up your mind, your manager asks you whether you have plans to go elsewhere. If you wanted to avoid showing your hand, you could lie blatantly. You could change the topic. Or, you could palter: use a truthful statement to create a misleading impression.

“Financially, you’re treating me really well and I don’t think there’s anything out there that could match that.”

Paltering is the topic of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors, Todd Rogers and others at Harvard University, focused on negotiation situations, where access to accurate information had concrete consequences. They found that paltering is fairly common – real-life negotiators reported doing it more frequently then telling a lie, and as commonly as neglecting to share information – and that one reason for this is that they believed it wasn’t such a big deal as lying. In this, they were sadly mistaken.

In one experiment, 130 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website imagined trying to use eBay to sell a car with generally positive features but that sometimes mysteriously failed to start. When a prospective customer asked if there were any engine problems, the researchers told some participants to imagine that they parried the question by using a palter: emphasising the (true) fact that the car mostly ran very smoothly. Other participants were asked to play the role of the customer, and to imagine their feelings after discovering this deception post-purchase.

When asked to rate their own honesty in the negotiation, the seller participants rated themselves as 3.4, not too far below the mid-point on the 7-point rating scale. But the buyer participants rated the same transaction as significantly less honest, an average of just 2.5. This makes sense because unlike an outright liar, a palterer has recourse to the justification “I didn’t actually say anything untrue” to maintain their self-image as basically decent, but the victim has the same harsh experience of being deceived, regardless of the method. A follow-up study showed that people feel less comfortable paltering when responding to a direct question, conscious of the fact that their counterpart was explicitly seeking information that was then deliberately denied. But they felt that slipping in misdirection as part of a broader patter was easier to excuse.

The researchers also looked at the material consequences of paltering as a form of deception, this time in a more complex negotiation with all participants acting as a seller and subjected to paltering by the buyer. The participants’ task was to sell a plot of land, the worth of which depended on whether it was to be used residentially or for (much more profitable) commercial use. A research assistant acted as a prospective buyer, and participants were encouraged to use part of the discussion to find out what the buyer would use the plot for. The buyer’s true aim was indeed commercial, and in one condition they openly admitted this in response to questioning. In another condition, the buyer overtly lied, claiming the use would be for residential building. And in a third key condition, the buyer paltered: emphasising the true fact that they had only been involved in residential developments to date.

Participants had to make a secret offer, hoping to get the highest sale price they could but knowing that it would be automatically rejected if it was beyond the buyer’s budget. When met with a lie or palter, participants made weaker, more tentative bids, and afterwards reported their suspicion that the buyer didn’t have the budget associated with a commercial bid. When the truth was revealed – the buyer had commercial plans and a big budget – participants judged both acts of deception as equally bad, expressing a disinclination to enter business relations with either type of dissembler in the future. Paltering paid off in the short term, but got punished.

Paltering then, is a form of deception that’s effective at actively leading other parties to false conclusions, just like straight-out lying. Perpetrators can enjoy a sense of plausible deniability, as the statements are technically true, but the harm they cause to their relationships is no less palpable.

Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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