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Detecting Deception Using the Law of Sufficient Motivation

Friday, February 18, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

The skill of detecting deception is one to which many of us aspire. We track new research and news stories on strategies for identifying deception and have written about this often.  A new post at the Ambigamy blog focuses on use of the “Law of Sufficient Motivation” as a tool for identifying deception.

“Think of it as the Law of Sufficient Motivation. If someone would cling to power for ego-gratification, then helping people becomes a superfluous, un-necessary motive. Ego-gratification is sufficient motivation. He would cling to power regardless of whether he really cared about helping people. The more discreditable motivations one has, the less necessary the honorable motivators become.

The law of Sufficient Motivation is a popular way to spot liars. The recipe is straightforward. If there’s someone you just don’t trust–your gut says they’re lying or otherwise bad, just imagine an unsavory motivation he might have. Declare it to be that person’s “true” motivation and you’ll have confirmed your gut and exposed the liar.”

We see this sort of reasoning in pre-trial research routinely. We’ve written about it here and here. This sort of reasoning is predictable, but doesn’t show up  in demographics or reactions to generic questions.  It is a function of two primary factors that you can keep in mind:

1) What is the lens through which they typically examine life?

2) How curious is this person?

If their values and beliefs (aka ‘life lens’) are biased in favor of your witness, your client, or your case—it doesn’t matter whether they are curious or not.  But for them to put forth the effort required to keep an open mind and to truly consider information that they wouldn’t have found appealing prior to trial—that requires a curious mind and some effort on the juror’s part.

We use pretrial research to elicit these ideas about case narratives. For example, we’ve had jurors demonstrate this sort of thinking by saying:

“She acts like she is all sweet but I can tell she is just a backstabber.”

“He is in cahoots with someone. I am not sure just who, but I can tell and I don’t think we are being told the whole story.”

“When I watch her testimony, there is something about her I just don’t trust. I’m good with people and I know she is a liar.”

Ideally, you can identify jurors who have a world view that is skeptical of your witnesses or your story, and exclude them.  But that isn’t usually enough.  We identify these sorts of associations/reactions from mock jurors and then build case themes and story lines that will soothe those who might be skeptical.  In pretrial research we dig to discover why those hostilities emerged so strongly, and we modify the case narrative so that it will address these sorts of reactions in real jurors. In other words, we tell the story that the most dubious can find comfort in.

The story is still the story. But if those same doubts arise, the narrative will now address them rather than leaving holes which bother jurors and which they attempt to fill with their own ideas and preconceived notions.

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