Telling Only The Partial Truth Linked With Feelings Of Guilt And Shame

orange marker on truth word
orange marker on truth word

OK, just come clean already: A new study shows that telling only part of the truth will make you feel worse than telling the whole truth or not confessing at all.

"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," study researcher Eyal Pe'er, Ph.D., said in a statement. "But our findings show just the opposite is true." Pe'er, who is currently at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, conducted the study while at Carnegie Mellon University.

For the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers analyzed data from a series of experiments. In one experiment, 2,113 people participated in a virtual coin-tossing test, where they had to predict the outcome of 10 coin tosses, and then say how many times they were correct (they received a financial incentive for correct guesses).

More than one-third of the participants cheated in this test, saying that they got about three guesses more correct than they actually did. However, among the participants who cheated, 19 percent of them confessed. But not everyone fully confessed -- 60 percent confessed to everything, while the other 40 percent only partially confessed. Researchers told the participants that it was OK to admit to cheating, and even if they said they cheated, they'd get the payment for the tosses that they inaccurately reported as correct.

The researchers found an association between the extent of cheating and only partially confessing, with those cheating the most having a higher percentage of partial confessors than those who cheated less.

Then, in another experiment, researchers had 719 people participate in a similar coin-tossing test. But in this one, the participants were asked to say how they were feeling -- whether positive or negative emotions -- right before they were deciding whether or not to confess to cheating in the game. Researchers found that those who ultimately ended up partially confessing were the most likely to express negative emotions -- like shame or guilt -- before confessing, compared with those who fully confessed, or who didn't confess at all.

In yet another experiment in the study, 357 study participants were asked to talk about a time they confessed -- either fully or partially -- to doing something wrong. People who only partially confessed felt more guilt -- though it was undetermined if the guilt was for only partially confessing, or if they felt guilty for confessing at all -- compared with people who confessed in full, who instead felt more relief.

Researchers also found that some subjects garnered more full confessions than others. For instance, people were more likely to say they fully confessed, instead of partially confessed, to being unfaithful to a partner.

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