Oftentimes, people going through a custody dispute want to have psychological
evaluations to show the judge "who is lying" to the court about
some issue or another. Conversely, some people going through psychological
evaluations in a custody case become concerned that the other person will
"lie" to the evaluator through charm or outright deception and
sway the results of the evaluation.
Dr. John Zervopolous, a noted consultant in the Dallas, Texas area on psychological issues
in custody cases, discussed this concern in the June issue of the
Section Report newsletter of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section. He points out that child custody litigants who undergo psychological
evaluations approach court-ordered evaluations in characteristic ways:
they are defensive, or self-protective; they gloss over, if not deny,
problems; and they often cast their soon-to-be or ex-spouses in a negative
light. "When parents view litigation as a high stakes, win-lose gamble,
they conform their behaviors towards that end," Dr. Zervopolous notes.
Sometimes what one parent thinks is a "lie" by the other parent
is simply the other parent’s perspective of the "truth".
In other words, each parent may see a situation very differently and have
differing perspectives on what is true or untrue. But, he says, psychologists
do not have fool-proof abilities to discern whether people are telling
the truth or deceptively shading the truth or outright lying.
No psychological test—even the MMPI-2 and its validity scales—reliably
detects lies. Instead, adequately designed validity scales incorporated
into tests may broadly reflect the examinee’s “response style”
or approach to test questions. Further, the evaluation’s context
may affect the examinee’s test response style. For instance, examinees
answer test questions as parents in child custody suits, as plaintiffs
in sexual harassment lawsuits, or as criminal defendants. Depending on
the context, examinees may try to look too well-adjusted, to exaggerate
or make up problems, or to reflect accurately their emotional condition.
Determining the examinee’s response style and its meaning are the
first steps to accurate test interpretation.
Unfortunately, not all tests contain equally reliable or sensitive response
style measures. The MMPI-2’s measures, encompassing several validity
scales, are comparatively well-developed and provide useful response style
information. Yet much of the research supporting these measures is inconclusive.
Further, these measures by themselves may not always accurately reflect
the examinee’s true approach to the test questions—for instance,
a naïve approach to test questions may be mistaken for trying to
look too well-adjusted, or a profile that appears to indicate an examinee’s
attempts to feign psychological symptoms may actually reflect a “cry
Compared to the MMPI-2, the response style measures of the MCMI-III and
the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) are less developed. And response
style measures of other tests, composed only of transparent questions
that attempt to catch examinees in obvious falsehoods—e.g. “Have
you ever told a lie?”—are as useless as tests with no response
style measures. Testing without adequate response style measures are vulnerable
to evidentiary reliability problems.
Dr. Zervopolous suggests four lines of questions to begin cross-examining
experts about test results that inform their opinions:
- Do the administered tests assess the examinee’s response style?
- If so, how accurately, according to the research, do the tests’
response style measures assess the examinee’s approach to the test
- What does the examinee’s measured response style say about her approach
to the testing?
- How does that approach, then, affect the expert’s test interpretation?
Reliable test interpretation cannot begin without first addressing the
response style issue. Answers to these questions will help custody litigants
better understand how the expert interpreted test results and how those
results informed the expert opinion.