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Why we sue

Why we sue


An overwhelming need for certainty, autonomy, trust and status is driving the impulse to sue others, says Dr Bob Murray

Why do people sue each other? The answer may appear simple to a lawyer: they sue because they feel aggrieved by some action or inaction by the other party. Though this is true, it doesn’t get you far – it’s not a basis for negotiation or settlement.

Look at it another way. The lawsuit is the final statement in a relationship that both parties probably valued at one stage.

To illustrate, let’s start with a basic idea. All human beings, even psychopaths, need to be part of a nexus of supportive relationships. We are relationship forming beings. Our ancestors needed supportive relationships to survive because we were otherwise defenceless. That’s why we fear exclusion more than anything else.

We will die to make ourselves have more value and greater status as a member of our selected ‘tribe’. This is why, according to all the studies, suicide bombers do their thing.

In almost every piece of litigation, either or both parties feel at some deep level that they have been excluded from a supportive relationship, whether real or expected; or they fear they are going to be excluded.

Here’s another basic fact: human beings all make decisions on the basis of emotion. They also make decisions based on a range of other things such as the context in which we make the decision, our childhood experiences, our habitual responses, our health, genetics, relationship drivers, mood, assumptions and beliefs and our memories.

Facts and reason are noticeably missing from this list. Recent research has shown that we don’t make decisions on the basis of the facts of the matter or any reasoning; we use these selectively to justify the decisions other parts of the human decision-making system have made.

Those parts include our gut, heart and skin ‘brain’ (where around 60 per cent of our decisions are made); and even the state of our microbiota, which greatly influences our mood and actions.

So the decision to sue may have nothing to do with the facts. It may just be a rational justification for the emotional need for revenge or the desire to hurt, or to re-establish supportive links with the other party.

What’s more, humans are slaves to five core relational/emotional drivers: we have the need for certainty, autonomy, trust and status. These are what I call the CATS drivers. If most of our actions are governed by our need for supportive relationships, it’s the CATS that show us whether the relationship is strong and ongoing.

  • Certainty – We need the certainty that those in our support network value the relationship as much as we do.
  • Autonomy – We need autonomy so that we know we have a sense of control over our own destiny within the context of our relationships.
  • Trust – We need to feel we can trust the people we have relationships with.
  • Status – We need to feel we have status in the eyes of people whose support we need. Status is closely related to safety, since we tend to protect those we see as of high status.

In every piece of litigation, there will be relational and CATS elements behind the impulse to sue – or the action or inaction that led to the dispute. One or more of the CATS issues has not been met or has, perhaps, been taken away by the other party. In this situation, a good solicitor or litigator must talk to the parties and find out the underlying issues, for example:

  • The failed relationship.
  • The loss of a sense of support.
  • The lack of freedom of action.
  • The loss of status, eg are they suing to look good to a boss or a board.
  • The developing lack of trust.
  • A feeling they need the certainty or finality a successful lawsuit might bring to the relationship.

Once you understand these issues, you can start negotiating on the basis of the real and important issues driving human behaviour.

You can examine each party’s CATS needs to find out how these could be met outside of the courtroom.

The more granularly you can get the parties to express their needs, the better. You can negotiate about specifics; but not about generalities which are always loaded with unspoken, unclarified or unidentified emotions.

Even a trivial request such as, ‘I need this ASAP’, has no specificity – there’s no hint of exactly when it’s needed by. So it’s not about what you want done but about the anxiety you may feel about it.

Perhaps an essential part of the legal discovery process in any substantive matter should include discussions to discover the underlying CATS, relational and emotional issues that have led to the dispute in the first place, since documents and information pertain to facts, not decision-making.

But, you ask, isn’t money a driver? Couldn’t the dispute simply be about money or something else of value? Yes, of course money is a driver – but it’s complex. Usually, when people sue each other the desired outcome is quantified in monetary terms, so we tend to assume that is what the dispute about.

But the funny thing about money is that it’s a communication tool. We give each other value, recognition, importance or status through money. If you’re not financially struggling and I give you £1,000, I’m saying something about the relationship between us. The money is a symbol of something else and that something is always emotion/relationship driven.

This is true even in families. A child’s allowance is a relationship statement. The individual who looks after the family finances represents a relationship statement.

The value of what you give your spouse for a birthday present is a relationship statement. Similarly, when a married couple divorce, the property split according to its monetary value is a relationship statement.

When an aggrieved employee sues for wrongful dismissal, they are making a comment about the relationship with their former employer.

So if we are trying to facilitate a reconciliation between two litigants, we need to find out what relationship needs have not been met and what CATS issues have not been adhered to.


When people sue each other it’s because:

  • A relationship has broken down.
  • The parties’ relationship needs have not been clearly expressed or met.
  • They feel they lack status, certainty, autonomy or trust.

During my research and from 30 years’ experience as a psychologist, I have found overwhelmingly that clients who sue each other are looking for someone – you, the lawyer – to put the relationship back together again.

You can do that by getting them to discuss emotional and relationship issues. Not facts. Not money. Not reasoning.

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services.

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