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 for help.”

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:

  1. Do the administered tests assess the examinee’s response style?
  2. If so, how accurately, according to the research, do the tests’ response style measures assess the examinee’s approach to the test questions?
  3. What does the examinee’s measured response style say about her approach to the testing?
  4. 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.


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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.