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Lying and the Law


lying and the lawA recent National Geographic article, “Why We Lie,” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee investigates the science behind lying. Since the topic of truth and honesty is central to the legal system, we at Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates decided to look at three ways that all of us can encourage honesty in life and in law. But first, a look at why people lie.

Motivations for lying

The NG article details how and when humans learn to lie and the reasons for deception. If we’re going to have a chance at curbing untruths in life and law, it’s important for us to understand the underlying (yep that’s a pun) reasons why people fib. Lies can be as benign as excusing tardiness or as extreme as covering a crime but most fit into one of three categories – lying to protect oneself, promote oneself or influence others.

The top reasons for lying, according to the National Geographic article are:

  • Covering up a mistake or misdeed
  • Escaping or evading other people
  • Gaining financial benefits
  • Gaining personal benefits
  • Shaping a positive image of ourselves
  • Humor
  • Altruism
  • Upholding social roles or avoiding rudeness
  • Malicious intent
  • Pathological disorder

Understanding the motivations for and frequency of lying is important in the practice of law.

“Mounting evidence suggests that the broad public commitment to telling the truth under oath has been breaking down, eroding over recent decades, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years. Because there are no statistics, it’s impossible to know for certain how much lying afflicts the judicial process, and whether it’s worse now than in previous decades,” wrote James B. Stewart in his book, “Tangled Webs.”

Encouraging Honesty

To maintain the sanctity of the legal process, it’s crucial that we examine motivations behind honesty and how to encourage it. The entire legal system is based on finding and acting on the truth. Hence the oath, “The whole truth and nothing but the truth.” With that as the goal, there are three main honesty motivations.

1) Innate Character

Humans seem to have a biological and anthropological need to be honest (or at least be perceived as honest.)

National Geographic article "Why We Lie"According to a recent National Geographic article, “Why We Lie,” lying is natural. But just as natural is the urge to try to be honest. Researchers have tested our basic urge to be honest. In a study cited in the National Geographic article, participants had the opportunity to lie to make money. Although most people exaggerated to gain a little, few claimed the maximum reward. “The reason, according to [Psychologist and author Dan Ariely] is that we want to see ourselves as honest, because we have, to some degree, internalized honesty as a value taught to us by society. Which is why, unless one is a sociopath, most of us place limits on how much we are willing to lie.”

2) Punishment for dishonesty

The second motivation involves negative reinforcement. Children who shoplift have consequences. Bank robbers who get caught go to jail and those who perjure themselves in court are disciplined. It stands to reason that humans who learn this cause and effect relationship would tell the truth to avoid negative repercussions.

3) Reinforcing Good Behavior

When honest, responsible citizens are rewarded with accolades and recognition, it reinforces that good things happen when people follow society’s rules. Parents hoping to encourage honesty in their children remember to reward truthfulness. As positive reinforcement, Michigan Family Law Attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler reminds clients that honest clients encounter fewer complications, delays and expenses in their cases. It pays to tell the truth when it comes to legal situations.

“The truth DOES come out in court,” says experience Livingston County family lawyer Kathryn Wayne-Spindler. “Opposing counsels dig until they find lies. It’s their job. So it’s better for me to know what I’m up against than to be surprised.”

Lies of omission

Yes, avoiding the truth can also be costly.

“So much money and time is wasted when people withhold crucial information from their lawyers,” said Wayne-Spindler. “We’ve seen enough to know when drugs, alcohol or abuse are involved in a case. But when a client can’t admit to it, they’re holding onto positions they can’t win and it hurts their case.”

Lying directly impacts the cost and duration of a case and may also unwittingly damage the lawyer-client relationship. Uncovering lies may make it tougher for the lawyer to trust the rest of the client’s story.

Attorney Kathryn Wayne-SpindlerKathryn Wayne-Spindler has been practicing law for more than 20 years and is adamant about dispelling the myth of dishonest lawyers. “Some people think that the law profession is overrun with greedy, conniving attorneys who will do anything for a win. But that’s just not the case. I am personally, morally opposed to lying. I’m also bound by bar rules that prohibit knowingly passing along untruths. I’m not going to risk damaging my reputation, livelihood or personal values for the sake of winning a case for a dishonest client.”

Kathryn Wayne-Spindler and her associates are dedicated to working with integrity to help clients achieve their best family law outcomes. Contact the law office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates in Milford, Michigan at 248-676-1000. The family law and probate attorneys handle cases throughout Southeastern Michigan including Oakland, Washtenaw, Livingston, Wayne, and Genesee counties. We help clients in Milford; Highland; Hartland; White Lake; Walled Lake; Commerce; Waterford; South Lyon; Howell; New Hudson; Holly; Grand Blanc and many more local communities.

Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long, Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates