When you do something wrong, there are two typical reactions that pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, you might want to hide what you have done. If nobody finds out, then it may feel like you didn’t do it at all. On the other hand, you might just want to confess what you have done wrong. That gets the problem out into the open and helps people to move forward.
A middle ground between these possibilities is the partial confession. In a partial confession, you admit to what you did wrong, but you don’t admit to the full extent of it. The partial confession seems like a great compromise. You get the benefit of admitting what you have done, but you can make your transgression seem less extreme than it was.
A paper in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Eyal Peer, Alessandro Acquisti, and Shaul Shalvi suggests that partial confessions may actually be worse than either a full confession or not confessing at all.
First, one study looked at whether people have a tendency to make partial confessions. Participants in an on-line study performed a variety of tasks. In one task, they went to another website that allowed people to flip a virtual coin and predict how the coin would come out. They were asked to flip the coin 10 times. Then, they were told to report the number of guesses they got right. They got paid ten cents for each correct guess.
Although the participants didn’t know it, their actual predictions and coin flips were monitored, so the experimenters knew whether a particular participant told the truth or cheated. Overall about 35% of the participants over-reported the number of flips they predicted correctly. (Almost nobody under-reported the number of correct guesses, so this is cheating and not bad memory.)
Later in the study, participants were given a chance to confess whether they cheated. They were told that they would be paid based on what they reported even if they now admitted they had cheated. They were also told that there would be no negative consequences of admitting that they had cheated.
Only about 18% of the participants who cheated confessed. Of those who did confess, the ones who cheated most were also the ones most likely to give partial confessions. That is people who over-reported by just a few guesses tended to give a full confession, while those who over-reported a lot tended to give a partial confession.
Why do people give partial confessions? Another study gave participants a hypothetical situation like the one I just described. They were told that they had over-reported and then were asked to assume that they had confessed fully, had not confessed at all or gave a partial confession. Each participant responded to only one of these possibilities. They rated whether they thought their story would be credible and how they would feel after giving the confession.
Participants who were told to imagine they had given a full confession rated themselves as being most credible. Those told to imagine they had given no confession rated themselves as least credible. Those who imagined a partial confession came out in between. There was no difference between groups in their prediction of how they would feel.
Another study looked at how participants actually feel after confessing. They gave participants an opportunity to cheat as in the study I described earlier. In this study, participants were asked to rate their mood at the end of the study. Unsurprisingly, participants in who did not cheat at all had the lowest level of negative feeling at the end of the study. Participants who gave a partial confession actually had the highest level of negative feeling, greater than that of either those who cheated and did not confess or those who cheated and gave a full confession.
Finally, another study in this series asked people to imagine they were hearing about people who might have cheated in a task like the coin flipping task. Participants found out that the individual reported an unlikely event and then later heard a confession that was likely to be a full confession, a partial confession, or no confession. This study found that participants found the full confession most credible, the absence of a confession least credible and the partial confession to be in between the two.
Putting this all together, then, it seems that partial confessions are not that valuable. They are somewhat more credible to others than not confessing at all. But, the partial confession actually makes the confessor feel worse than no confession at all. One reason why partial confessions create negative feeling is that discrepancies among thoughts are often discomforting. The partial confession forces confessors to think both about what they did and about what they said. The partial confession actually focuses more attention on the thing people did wrong than no confession at all.
An interesting question for future research is whether confessions act a little like forgiveness. In an earlier blog entry, I described research suggesting that when people forgive others for a transgression, they are better able to forget the details of what happened to them than when they do not forgive. Perhaps a full confession also helps transgressors to forget the details of what they did wrong and to move on with their lives.