How The 2016 Presidential Candidates Misled Us With Truthful Statements

Paltering, a subtle form of lying where an almost true statement is used, is not unknown in the world of politics. Here are several examples.
by Dina Gerdeman

"Paltering" is the active use of truthful statements to influence a target’s beliefs by giving a false or distorted impression. It can pervade all kinds of personal interactions, from romantic relationships to foreign affairs, whenever people are tempted to mislead others. (See How To Deceive Others With Truthful Statements.) And it has certainly wormed its way into the political spectrum.

The research paper Artful Paltering: The Risks and Rewards of Using Truthful Statements to Mislead Others opens with excerpts from a January 21, 1998, PBS NewsHour interview where Jim Lehrer asks President Bill Clinton about allegations of his having had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In his answers, the president speaks in the present tense as a way of dodging Lehrer’s questions.

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.

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

Clinton: There is not a sexual relationship—that is accurate.

Politicians often palter by changing the topic or by giving an answer that doesn’t directly answer the question that was asked. “They’re getting tough questions they don’t want to hear,” says Harvard Business School Professor Francisco Gino, one of the research paper’s co-authors, “so they’re focusing on making truthful statements, but trying to move away from what’s being asked.”

During the 2016 presidential race, Gino says, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton paltered in attempts to distort the story to influence voters. She shared these examples:

A Trump palter: One example is Donald Trump’s response in the September 26 presidential debate to a question about a federal lawsuit that charged his family’s company with housing discrimination. His answer: “When I was really young, I went into my father’s company. We, along with many, many, many other companies, throughout the country—it was a federal lawsuit—were sued. We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.”

The facts: While it’s true that the Trumps did not admit guilt in the consent decree, a New York Times investigation suggested that the admission did not mean that they were innocent. Though Trump was young (27 years old), he was the company’s president. And though there may have been other firms sued at other times, the Trumps were the only one sued at that particular time.

Click to watch.
Trump defends himself against housing discrimination charge.

A Clinton palter: Another example is a TV ad that Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran last December, which included the following claim: “In the last seven years, drug prices have doubled.” One of the main purposes of the ad was to highlight the need for reforms. The ad explained Clinton’s plans, if elected, to require Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drug companies and allow Americans to buy drugs at more affordable prices.

The facts: Some of the information in the claim was true. The prices of brand-name drugs have more than doubled during that time period. But the truth was used in the ad to create a false impression: A reform may in fact not be necessary if drug prices are not an issue for many Americans. In fact, more than 80 percent of filled prescriptions are for generic drugs rather than brand-name ones. And the prices for such drugs have declined by more than 6 percent over the same time period.

Click to watch.
Clinton ad palters the truth around drug price increases.

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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