Is a lie by omission still a lie?
Well, it depends on what your definition of “is” is. In a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of researchers investigated a form of dishonesty known as “paltering,” or using truth as misdirection — a strategy made famous by one Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Consider this exchange the researchers offer up as an example of what paltering looks like, between Clinton and PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer in 1991:
Lehrer: “No improper relationship” – define what you mean by that.
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.
The key to paltering, the study authors note, is that it doesn’t actually involve any untrue statements — at the time Clinton uttered the words, the relationship in question was over. “There is not,” then, is technically accurate, but intentionally worded in a way that ignores the context of the question and obscures the greater truth.
Past research has shown that people are more willing to lie by omission than they are to tell an outright falsehood, and over a series of six experiments, the researchers found that paltering is no different — to the teller, it feels more ethical, like something between the truth and a total lie. (They also found that it’s incredibly common: In one survey administered to Harvard business students, roughly half admitted that they had previously used paltering as a negotiation strategy.)
The problem is, those on the receiving end don’t feel the same way: Across the various experiments, people who learned that their conversation partner had paltered to them said they considered the move to be just as ethically rotten as telling a bald-faced lie. “A palterer may focus on the veracity of her statements, whereas a target may focus on the mistaken impression that was conveyed,” the authors wrote. “As a result, palterers may perceive their behavior to be moral even as targets perceive palterers to be dishonest and immoral.” In other words, telling some highly literal, incomplete version of the truth may ease your guilty conscience, but it won’t help your case if you’re caught in the act.