Would you rather tell the police officer that pulls you over you were going 10 mph over the speed limit or admit to the 30 mph you were actually going over the speed limit?
Partial confessions seem like the best of both worlds: we can ease our feelings of guilt and still get away with a little unethical behaviour.
But a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this month found that people who only partially confessed to wrongdoing ended up feeling worse than those who fully confessed.
The reasons people confess (relieving the burden of guilt, securing a plea bargain in court, etc.) have been studied extensively by psychologists, but we don’t know much about the extent to which people confess and the emotional impact confessions of varied degrees can have.
Here’s how the authors defined a partial confession:
If a person stole $US100, admitting to stealing $US100 would constitute a full confession. Claiming to have stolen only $US50, on the other hand, would constitute a partial confession. Critical to our view, we consider confessions on a spectrum ranging from not confessing at all to fully confessing, with a range of partial confessions stretching between these two ends.
Participants in the study were asked to recall times when they did something unethical and whether they confessed, partially confessed, or did not confess at all. Some categories of confessions are more likely to be partial than others, as you can see in the chart below:
The psychologists identified two main reasons we choose to partially confess:
1. To make ourselves look better in the eyes of others. For example, telling a friend you cheated on your diet and had one candy bar, rather than admitting to the five that you really had. A partial confession often seems more believable than not confessing at all.
2. To minimize our feelings of guilt. The psychologists think many of us are honest only up to the point we feel we can justify our behaviour, i.e., we only admit to others what we can justify to ourselves.
To test these in the lab, the researchers asked participants to predict the outcome of 10 coin tosses, then (in “private”) actually perform 10 coin tosses and report how many they got right. The more coin tosses they got right, the more money they won.
About 35% of the total participants in the study chose to cheat during the experiment. About 40% of the cheaters who chose to confess used a partial confession, and the other 60% fully confessed.
Those who only cheated a little (by adding a few to the actual number of tosses they got right) were more likely to fully confess, but those who cheated a lot (reporting they got correctly predicted all of the tosses) were more likely to only partially confess.
They then had a different group of participants perform the coin toss test, and asked each participant how they felt after they had chosen to confess or not.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that most people who participated in the experiment failed to anticipate the emotional toll of their partial confessions. A partial confession consistently made people feel worse than they did after not confessing at all or completely owning up and facing the consequences.
Overall it seems that we use partial confessions as a compromise between our desire to remain credible and our desire to get rid of our guilt.
“It seems that what drives people to opt for partial confessions is their relative gain in credibility compared with not confessing and relative gain in not having to face the consequences of admitting to a major wrongdoing compared with fully confessing,” the psychologists write in the paper. “Partial confessions seem like an optimal option when weighing the costs and benefits of admitting to one’s transgression.”
It may seem like the optimal choice, but a partial confession ends up making us feel the worst.
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