Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Total Regret

If you're going to own up to wrongdoing, go all the way.

Partial confessions seem seem like the best of both worlds: They ease our guilt and shield us from some blame. Maybe you take an extra half hour on your break, but when confronted by your boss, you say it was only 15 minutes. No harm done, right?

Actually, such half-truths may come back to bite us: Studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who only partially admitted to wrongdoing ended up feeling worse than those who fully owned up to it or didn't confess at all.

Participants predicted the outcome of 10 coin tosses, then reported, for a reward, how many they had correctly predicted. Nearly a third over-reported the number of predictions they got right.

The subjects, however, were then given a chance to come clean—and their "earnings" were guaranteed, no matter what they said. Some confessed fully; others admitted only to some number-fudging; and some participants confessed nothing. Later asked to indicate on a scale of one to five how they felt about their choice, the partial confessors reported feeling about half a point worse than the rest.

This may be because partial confessions introduce a new shade of dishonesty into the mix, according to decision researcher Eyal Pe'er: "Trying to cover up one lie by telling another lie seemed to have a negative emotional effect."