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  • Kenisha Ferreira

Event Report: Why People Lie? The Psychology of Attribution in Family Law

Date: Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Time: 3:30pm - 4:45pm AEDT

Venue: YouTube Live

Speaker: Dr Phil Watts

Price: Free


About the Presenter:

Dr Phil Watts is a well-known forensic psychologist from Western Australia who has over 30 years’ experience in family law, especially in areas related to legal skills, subpoenas, giving evidence, report writing, psychometrics, and assessment. He has been Single Expert Witness in over 2000 cases. You may have read his book “Shared Care or Divided Lives: What’s Best for Children when Parents Separate”. He is also the author of “How to Find Love and Not a Psycho”. He is a frequent presenter both nationally and internationally on wide variety of topics. The extent of his knowledge varies from expert evidence, to assessing families, risk assessment, ethics, pornography, drugs, sleep issue or dealing with difficult people.


On Wednesday the 19th of October, the National Family Law Pathways Network ran a webinar on the psychology of attribution in family law. The event involved Dr Phil Watts speaking about the basics of lying and the psychological processes that individuals go through in order to understate or overstate the truth. The webinar had a special focus on the occurrence of attribution in family law situations, including when witnesses or parties are expected to relay past events. Attribution is the mechanism which allows people to believe that something is truthful by distorting reality. It is distinct from lying which is a deliberate deception and/or concealed reality.

Commencing the presentation, Dr Watts spoke about the common problems of lying. These included that people often underestimate their ability to tell lies and overestimate their ability to detect lies. People also often find that concealment is easier than falsification, meaning it is easier to hide the truth than to lie. Importantly, the stronger the emotion felt by the individual, the more likely it is for a lie to show. Dr Watts gave an overview of how this can cause problems in forensic contexts, where it is often a high stakes situation, such as a family law trial. For judges, lawyers and medical professionals the process of attribution makes it a complicated task for them to ascertain what reporting by an individual is genuine or fabricated. This is especially the case where the individual is exaggerating or poorly reporting an event as it can be difficult to separate the truth from the narrative. Dr Watts then presented a video recording of his daughter telling three different stories and asked viewers to guess which story was the true one. This activity illustrated the dilemma faced by professionals when dealing with witness testimony in that they cannot take the things said by an individual at face value as memory of events are clouded by perceptions, concealment, and falsification.

In the Family Court, both lying, and attribution occur, but attribution enables individuals to filter the information that is provided to the court and is often done unintentionally so is likely more common. This process means that individuals in a family law matter frequently blame external causes for behaviour or events instead of looking introspectively. Dr Watts highlighted situations where attribution may be common such as in reasons for separation, sexual abuse cases and domestic violence matters. As evidence is extremely important in determining a case, lawyers want testimony to be consistent. However, retrospective attribution can affect the quality of testimony. This is where an individual looks back at an event and sees a different reason as to why they acted a certain way. Thus, having the effect of altering the evidence initially provided. Alienation of children can also occur as a result of attribution by a parent as they use their beliefs to distort their children’s understanding and moral justification towards the other parent.

To conclude the session, Dr Watts highlighted the importance of being able to compensate logically for the deficit that all humans have in filtering perceptions and attribution. When working with clients, all professionals must be aware of the client’s own perception and attributions which may be distorting the truth.

Question and Discussion:

1. How does this work with experience of trauma and ongoing risk in family violence contexts and the real impact on memory recall?

Trauma is another filter, and by the process of trauma individuals make all sorts of attributions. The stage of trauma has an impact on the type of attribution made by individuals. For example, a victim of domestic violence in the first year or two are likely to be in the state of high arousal or may also be in the minimising stage. Then five years down the track they may have avoidance symptoms which means they are suppressing memories and may get triggered.

2. Does post-modernism align with fundamental attribution when they both consider all realities as truths?

Attribution is a framework for seeing things as is post-modernism, however people’s truths are not objective realities. Thus, we have to understand how they have bridged that truth or non-truth. The framework is not important, it is more about understanding that there is not a one-to-one relationship between behaviour and how people think about it.

3. For non-therapists what handy hints could assist in moving a client forward from self-serving bias?

Helping people understand what they are doing is often quite powerful. Even non-therapists can assist clients in seeing outside of what they are doing.

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