There are three types of lies: Omission, where someone holds out on the facts; commission, where someone states facts that are untrue; and paltering, where someone uses true facts to mislead you. It isn’t always easy to detect, but there are a few telltale signs.
Saul Goodman, master of paltering. Image via AMC.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests the practice of paltering is pretty common, especially among business executives. Not only that, but the people who do it don’t seem to think they’re doing anything wrong – despite the fact that most people feel like it’s just as unethical and untrustworthy as intentional lies of commission. It isn’t only execs who do it, though. If you’ve ever tried to buy a used car from a slimy salesman, been in a salary negotiation with a tough as nails boss, or watched basically any US presidential debate, you’ve definitely seen paltering in action.
For example, that slimy used car salesman might say that the old beater you’re looking at “starts up great” and that “these are reliable models” when you ask how it runs, but neglects to mention that the engine of that particular vehicle dies regularly. He didn’t lie to you, but he didn’t tell you the truth either. Jimmy McGill (AKA Saul Goodman), the main character from AMC’s Better Call Saul, is another great example of a pro palterer.
Paltering works so well because it isn’t a lie in the way we think of lies, making it harder to accuse someone of doing it. After all, how do you tell someone they’re lying if you know they’re telling the truth? And more often than not, falsely accusing someone of lying makes you look worse than the accused. Paltering is also an easy way to distract someone with things they want to hear. Again, the used car salesman in our example above is giving you information that makes you feel more comfortable about purchasing the car. It may not be information that you asked for, but your brain takes their response as an answer by association. You start to think, “If it starts up great, and the model is reliable in general, this one must run OK,” because why else would he have told you that stuff?
So how do you spot this type of deception? Here are a few tips:
- Know when to expect it: Paltering is common in business negotiations of all types, politics, and sales, but the tactic can also be used in personal relationships when the pressure is on.
- Listen to their language: In the book Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating, Frederick Shauer and Richard Zeckhauser suggest you watch for exaggeration or vague language. For example, when a real estate agent describes a location as “highly desirable”, or when a restaurant’s signature dish is “famous”. That listing may be highly desirable, but by who? That signature dish might be a famous item, but only at that restaurant. Does it feel like you’re just being told what you want to hear?
- Yes or no questions have power: Listen to the way someone answers a simple yes or no question. Open-ended questions give palterers more wiggle room to conjure true, semi-related information and use it to side-step the main issue. But with a yes or no question, all they should be responding with is either “yes” or “no”. If they aren’t, something is probably up.
- Keep questions focused if you get to ask them: If you’re the one who gets to ask the questions, keep them focused. You want to ask yes or no questions that bypass the possibility of paltering. For example, if you were to ask a significant other if they were cheating on you, don’t ask, “Are you cheating on me?” What if the affair was over by the time you asked? They could tell you the truth by saying, “No, I’m not cheating on you.” You should instead ask strict questions like, “Are you now, or have you ever, cheated on me?” The only answers are “yes” or “no”.
- Only accept answers to the questions asked: Whether you’re watching someone answer other people’s questions, or asking the questions yourself, train yourself to reject unrelated answers. Don’t let your brain forget what the question actually was! If the person answering questions responds with related facts, long explanations, or questions of their own, assume they are paltering.
Lying by telling the truth is, unfortunately, highly effective and we’re all pretty used to it by now, so detecting it will take some practise. Remember, just because what you’re hearing is true doesn’t mean they aren’t talking around the issue. Don’t just seek the truth; seek the right truth.