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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Does the Oath Make Witnesses More Truthful?

The following post was written by guest-blogger Andrew S. Dreier, author of Strategy, Planning and Litigating to Win

Does the Oath Make Witnesses More Truthful?

Surprisingly, swearing in witnesses may make them more truthful, and there are more things you can do to help them along the path.

In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, behavioral economist Dan Ariely relates a series of experiments on human truthfulness, and whether people who have an interest in being dishonest can be prompted, or “cued,” to be truthful.

Participants were not told the true nature of the experiment.   Ariely’s team simply offered them a cash bonus based on the number of correct responses they gave on a test.  He also made it appear incredibly easy to cheat and not get caught, though in reality there were checks on the participants performance of which the participants were unaware. 

The first round of tests determined that most people cheat.  Some cheated a lot, but most everyone cheated at least a little.  Surprisingly, the percentage of cheaters did not vary much as the chance of being caught further decreased or as the size of the reward increased.

In the next round, they preceded the test with a question related to ethics (e.g. in one situation they asked the participants to list as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember; in others they stated that the test was subject to an honor code).  Regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, when cued to think about ethics immediately prior to the test, none—zero percent—of the participants cheated. 

So, cued to focus on ethics immediately before tempting his or her honesty, the average person will attempt to be honest…generally.

To test how immediate the cue needed to be, Ariely’s team next conducted the experiment on freshmen at Princeton University, who are subjected to two weeks of lectures, presentations, and even a song about the school’s honor code during their Freshman Orientation. Tested some weeks after the orientation, the group given no further cue (beyond the earlier two weeks of lectures) cheated at the exact same rate as the participants in other sessions of the test.  The honor code harangue was too long past to improve their honesty. 

Yet, when the test was conducted with an immediate ethics cue (printing, “This test is subject to the school honor code” at the top of the page) the rate of cheating dropped to zero.  The ethics cue functioned identically with or without two weeks of lectures on honesty.

In a final round, Ariely’s team moved the ethics cue between the test (during which the participant would cheat) and the participants’ reporting their results, thus giving them a chance to back away from the act, free and clear, and be honest.  Here, the number of cheaters returned to the level it had been at with no ethics cue (i.e. most people cheated). 

Ariely concluded that if the discussion of ethics occurs after the person has already formed the intent to cheat, it will have no effect; the key is to focus participants on ethics immediately before they consider being dishonest.  Cueing them before the dishonest act is not enough. 

This may be of limited value against prepared witnesses, who will have long-since formed the intent to say what they plan to say.  However, even here, advocates have an opportunity to cue witnesses to be honest on matters they may not have prepared themselves to lie about.  And it offers hope that the rest of the witnesses will want to be honest, even if they might need an on-the-spot reminder right before you ask them a difficult question.

Good luck!

--Andrew S. Dreier

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece. For those of you attracted to the science behind the discussion about the copy machine, the book "Influence" by Robert Cialdini.