Why Partial Confessions Make Liars Feel Worse

While liars may believe partial confessions are more palatable to society, new research says it comes at an emotional cost.

Confession is good for the soul. So says a recent study published in the February issue of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. According to researchers, people who fully confessed after lying when given the opportunity to come clean felt better than those who partially confessed.

The research team (from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel) conducted a series of five experiments to determine what happens when people partially confess, or come clean about some aspects of a previous lie, but not completely.

Researchers surveyed 4,167 online participants across the country in various experiments. In one experiment, participants were told they were being tested for their ability to predict the outcome of 10 coin flips—heads or tails. Each participant was asked how many times he/she accurately predicted the outcome. For each correct prediction, participants had the opportunity to earn a 10-cent bonus. After they reported their results, participants were given the opportunity to confess if they over-reported their number of correct guesses, without penalty. Of the approximately 2,100 participants, 35% cheated. Of that group, approximately 18% (or 139 participants) confessed to cheating, with nearly 40% partially confessing and 59% making a full confession.

"Confessing to only part of one’s transgressions is attractive to a lot of people because they expect the confession to be more believable and guilt-relieving than not confessing. But our findings show just the opposite is true," lead author Eyal Peer, Ph.D., told the American Psychological Association.

While previous studies focused more on the "all or nothing" decision of whether or not to confess, this study examined what happens when people are given the opportunity to partially confess.

Here are some other findings from the study:

Coming clean allows you to move on.

By telling the whole truth, participants may relieve their guilt and move on more readily. However, those who engage in partial confessions "feel bad about not doing good," say researchers. By limiting the extent of their confession, the study suggests, the partial confessor actually feels worse than those who fully confessed.

Partial confessions may make you feel more credible, but it comes at an emotional cost.

Researchers suggest people who’ve been dishonest may decide to partially confess to appear more credible to others (as opposed to not confessing) while still being able to reap the benefits of their dishonest behavior. Partially confessing, however, aggravates guilt or bad feelings as opposed to alleviating them. "People seeking redemption by partially admitting their big lies feel guiltier because they do not take complete responsibility for their behaviors. True guilt relief requires people to fully come clean," Peer said.

Hat tip: Los Angeles Times

American Psychological Association

[Image: Flickr user Ricardo Diaz]

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