‘So Help Me God’? Does oath swearing in courtroom scenarios impact trial outcomes?

Ryan McKay, Will Gervais, Colin J. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In countries such as Britain and the US, court witnesses must declare they will provide truthful evidence, and are often compelled to publicly choose between religious (“oath”) and secular (“affirmation”) versions of this declaration. Might defendants who opt to swear an oath enjoy more favourable outcomes than those who choose to affirm? Two preliminary, pre-registered survey studies using minimal vignettes (Study 1, N=443; Study 2, N=913) indicated that people associate choice of the oath with credible testimony; and that participants, especially religious participants, discriminate against defendants who affirm. In a third, Registered Report study (Study 3, N=1821) we used a more elaborate audiovisual mock trial paradigm to better estimate the real-world influence of declaration choice. Participants were asked to render a verdict for a defendant who either swore or affirmed, and were themselves required to swear or affirm that they would try the defendant in good faith. Overall, the defendant was not considered guiltier when affirming rather than swearing, nor did mock-juror belief in God moderate this effect. However, jurors who themselves swore an oath did discriminate against the affirming defendant. Exploratory analyses suggest this effect may be driven by authoritarianism, perhaps because high-authoritarian jurors consider the oath the traditional (and therefore correct) declaration to choose. We discuss the real-world implications of these findings and conclude the religious oath is an antiquated legal ritual that needs reform.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)991-1014
Number of pages24
JournalThe British Journal of Psychology
Issue number4
Early online date3 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

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