This common practice doesn't seem as harmful as fibbing, but it can still take a real toll on your relationships, researchers say.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated December 16, 2016
Credit: Getty Images

Distorting the truth without actually lying has a name: paltering. We all do it, and according to a new Harvard University study, most of us feel better about paltering than flat-out fibbing. But before you give yourself a free pass, know that this type of deception is viewed by others just as harshly as a straight-up lie, and can seriously hurt your reputation if people catch on.

Paltering is common in negotiations—and in politics, as the past few months have shown. In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, study co-author and professor of business administration Francesca Gino, PhD, outlined just a few instances from the 2016 presidential race.

Remember when Donald Trump was asked at the first debate about a racial discrimination lawsuit his real-estate company faced in 1973? He stated that he was “really young” at the time, that it was his “father’s company,” and that “many, many, many other companies” were also sued.

Those statements are technically correct: Trump was only 27 then, and many other companies have been sued for discrimination. However, those facts are also misleading. Trump was president of his father’s company at the time, and his was the only company named in that specific lawsuit.

Another example is a television ad the Hillary Clinton campaign ran in December 2015, claiming that “in the last seven years, drug prices have doubled.” This was true for brand-name drugs, but the ad did not mention that 80% of prescriptions filled today are for generics, and that generic prices have declined over the same period.

You get the idea: Paltering is something politicians do a lot. But it’s also something that many of us do on a regular basis, in both our personal and professional lives.

“Even I do it too frequently,” says lead author Todd Rogers, PhD, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I’ll go into my inbox and look at an email I was supposed to reply to weeks ago. And I’ll look out the window and think about it for a few seconds, and then write, ‘I’ve been thinking about your email.’”

“I’m clearly creating the impression that I’ve been thinking this over for the last three weeks, when in truth I’ve been thinking about it for the last second and a half,” Rogers told Health. “I’m creating a false impression by telling truthful things—but yet it doesn’t feel as unethical as lying.”

But Gino and Rogers wanted to see what people on both sides of the coin think about paltering from an ethical, and personal, standpoint. To date, most research on deception has focused on two types, they say: lying by commission (using false statements) and by omission (choosing not to disclose relevant information).

In a series of experiments involving more than 1,750 participants, the researchers determined that paltering is common and recognized as a separate, third form of deception. In one study, more than 50% of business executives enrolled at Harvard Business School admitted they had used the tactic in some or most of their negotiations.

When they asked people to role-play as deceivers and deceivees, the researchers discovered that participants felt better about paltering rather than lying by commission; they thought their actions were more ethical because they were technically telling the truth. But when their deception was revealed, their counterparts graded them just as negatively as if they’d lied by commission.

"When individuals discover that a prospective negotiation partner has paltered to them in the past, they are less likely to trust that partner,” said Rogers in a press release, “and, therefore, less likely to negotiate with that person again.”

In other words, don’t get too comfortable with your habit of twisting the truth. If you get caught, it could definitely backfire. “Everybody’s got to use their own compass,” Rogers says, “but how others might see you is definitely something to keep in mind.”

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Rogers says the findings can also serve as a reminder, to everyone, to watch out for those who may try to use paltering against them.

“When someone appears to answer your question but doesn’t address the exact, narrow details, that creates an opportunity to mislead you,” he says. “If you ask the used car salesman if there have ever been any problems with a vehicle and he tells you, ‘I drove it today and it felt like a brand-new car,’ that should be a flag.”