Most people, not just lawyers, are often faced with determining the truthfulness of others. Recently, I read an interesting article in Scientific American written by Michael Shermer and entitled, “What Science Tells Us about Why We Lie.” Not only was this a well-written article but Mr. Shermer provides the reader with some fantastic insight into the human mind.
At the beginning of the article, the question “by how much people lie” is addressed by Mr. Shermer. Interestingly, Shermer found that people generally lie at a mere 10% rate above or below the truth. In other words, big lies are uncommon and most lies are small lies that are made to increase ones self-image while still looking honest. In day to day activities, I see this play out with my friends and in my practice. Basically, I look it as people simply attempting to “round up”, for example a client may tell me that his annual income last year was $40,000.00 when in fact it was $37,000.00. Is that a lie or a round-up? You be the judge.
Another interesting point, was that those “who were pressed for time lied and that those who had time to think told the truth.” When reading these words it caused me to laugh out loud and think, “No wonder statements in accident reports can be so different!”
However, there was a caveat to the last finding and that was when “time was not a factor” people only lie when they have “justification to do so.” This to me was the most important point of the article in that it can have enormous implications. I have witnessed “justified lies” on multiple occasions and often times these “justified lies” become focal points of intense nasty legal battles.
Probably one of the most infamous “justified lies”, that most of us will remember was President Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” In retrospect, that was a lie, plain and simple. It was a lie that was spoken long after the actual events. It was a lie that the speaker given his position probably felt justified in making. However, the ramifications of that lie were grave and drove the country into the messy realm of impeachment. Of course, the Clinton example was history making but in the everyday practice of law, lawyers must decide whether the truth is being spoken or whether a “justified lie” is being spoken.
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