Speaker's Corner: Does swearing an oath make a difference?

Almost everyone who has been engaged in the trial process has wondered at times if having witnesses swear an oath or affirm to tell the truth makes it more likely that they will actually do so.

It’s easy to be cynical and see the whole procedure as just some antiquated notion from the past when there was a concern for our immortal souls. Outside of the possible penalties that may result from lying, one might think oaths have little value in the truth-seeking process.

But the relatively new field of behavioural economics may have an empirically based answer to the effectiveness of oaths. Behavourial economics looks at how people make choices.

Unlike classic economics, which makes the assumption of rational behaviour by individuals, the behavioural area constructs various experiments to test what affects people’s choices.

In a recent U.S. study, one set of experiments aimed to determine whether people would cheat if given a chance to do so.

Two groups of undergraduates had five minutes to solve some math problems. For each correct answer, they received a nominal amount of money. Individuals in one group had to report how many correct responses they had and then hand in their answer sheets.

Members of the second group had instructions to shred their answer sheets and report the number of correct answers. Thus, the second group had a chance to cheat.

The result was that the group that had the chance to cheat had statistically higher scores (33 per cent higher) than the group that didn’t have the opportunity to deceive.

Members of the second group didn’t cheat as much as they could but they did a little. This is similar to a witness on the stand who doesn’t tell only lies during testimony in court.

It’s not an earth-shattering result, so how does it relate to oaths? Those running the experiment ran the same process again but with a difference. They gave two groups a task to do as before.

This time, however, both groups had a chance to cheat. Before doing the math problems, members of one of the two groups were asked to recall 10 books they had read in high school. The other group was asked to recall the Ten Commandments.

The result was that the group asked to recall the 10 books from high school cheated while the group asked to recall the Ten Commandments did not. This was the case even though most of the students tasked with recalling the Ten Commandments couldn’t remember more than a few of them.

In yet one more experiment, instead of recalling the Ten Commandments, the students were asked to read a statement indicating that the experiment was subject to the honour code of the university before they did the math problems.

Members of the other group were asked, as before, to recall 10 books they had read in high school before doing the problems. The result was that the students who read the statement didn’t cheat. This was the case even though there was, in fact, no university honour code.

Thus, it wasn’t the religious element of the Ten Commandments but having an ethical standard in mind just before having the opportunity to cheat that made the difference.

The researchers in this experiment concluded that “when we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.”

Therefore, it would seem that the requirement of swearing or affirming to tell the truth is a way of reminding those who testify of an ethical obligation. As a result, it makes it more likely that they will in fact tell the truth.

Michael Demczur is an assistant Crown attorney in York Region.

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