'I Cheated, But Only a Little' – Partial Confessions to Unethical Behavior
Forthcoming in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
56 Pages Posted: 23 May 2013 Last revised: 19 Nov 2013
Date Written: May 21, 2013
Confessions are people's way of coming clean, sharing unethical acts with others. Although confessions are traditionally viewed as categorical – one either comes clean or not – people often confess to only part of their transgression. Such partial confessions may seem attractive, because they offer an opportunity to relieve one’s guilt without having to own up to the full consequences of the transgression. In this paper, we explored the occurrence, antecedents, consequences, and everyday prevalence of partial confessions. Using a novel experimental design, we found a high frequency of partial confessions, especially among people cheating to the full extent possible. People found partial confessions attractive because they (correctly) expected partial confessions to be more believable than not confessing. People failed, however, to anticipate the emotional costs associated with partially confessing. In fact, partial confessions made people feel worse than not confessing or fully confessing, a finding corroborated in a laboratory setting as well as in a study assessing people’s everyday confessions. It seems that although partial confessions seem attractive, they come at an emotional cost.
Keywords: confessions; unethical behavior; negative emotions, decision making, credibility
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