The Best Way to Confess When You've Done Something Wrong
Indiscretions don’t have to ruin your reputation if you know how to confess.
Posted Dec 22, 2020
Everyone's committed an indiscretion at some point in life. Perhaps you've been caught in a white lie, which soon becomes exposed. Do you come out with a confession or do you try to cover it up? A friend asks you to review a resume before an upcoming job interview. You've agreed to do so, but somehow it slipped your mind. A week later, when your friend asks for your suggestions, you cover your lapse by coming up with a set of vague comments that are of no help at all. These don't fool your friend, who takes the whole episode very badly. How do you get over that "I've been caught" moment? Shouldn't you just have confessed in the first place, promising to get to it by the end of the day?
Lying and then covering up the lie is, in essence, a form of indiscretion in that it reflects a lack of good judgment on your part. Other indiscretions involve behavior that reflect a lack of reserve, or literally, lack of "discretion." Minor indiscretions are commonplace enough, as the above example shows, but then there are some that assume epic proportions in people's lives.
Consider what happened to well-known CNN legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, as reported in an October 15, 2020 New York Times article. At what he thought was the end of a Zoom meeting, as stated in the article, "the camera was still live and he was seen lowering and raising his computer camera, exposing and touching his penis, and motioning an air kiss to someone other than his colleagues...The man who spent years reporting on scandals had now become the scandal." Within days, Toobin was “indefinitely” banned from the airwaves and “the gavel of public opinion" came banging down.
This incident is perhaps one of the most recent if not notorious of public indiscretions to have occurred in the age of Zoom. Coincidentally, the television show “This Is Us” recently aired an episode in which Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown) pranced shirtless in front of a live camera that he thought was turned off. The indiscretion wasn’t quite as flagrant as Toobin's, but it certainly was in the same category.
If you’ve ever worried yourself about possible Zoom mishaps, these episodes should only fuel your angst. Are you sure your colleagues, friends, or family don’t see you anymore after you left a meeting? Could you be 100% certain that they are unable to view the fact that while in your meeting, you were playing video games, checking your email, doing some online shopping, or giving yourself a manicure?
Indeed, try as you might to be as fastidious as possible, there will be times you’ll be caught in some sort of compromising position that puts your poor judgment on public display, even without the aid of Zoom. You could mistakenly hit a “reply all” in an email chain instead of just making your snarky comments to your friend, or you could commit a similar in-person faux pas if a catty remark intended for one person is heard by another. You knew should have been more careful but, in that moment, your supervising superego wasn't doing its job.
When your good judgment has lapsed, then, what recourse do you have to reclaim either your reputation or your lost relationships? Is it best just to come clean, offer the best confession you can, and hope that the injured party or parties will move on? Or should you pretend that the unfortunate event never occurred?
According to a 2019 paper by Georgia Institute of Technology’s Michael Lowe and Vanderbilt University’s Kelly Haws, confessions tend to be the norm rather than the exception. As a result, there are actually dozens of social media sites that people use as platforms for their confessions. The question is—do those supposedly "true" confessions actually work?
You might think that after confessing to an indiscretion, you’d be likely to commit to never engaging in that behavior again. The unpleasantness of the act’s consequences combined with the unflattering way you must now view yourself should help guide you back onto the path of righteousness.
According to Lowe and Haws, whether you change or not on the basis of the confession actually depends on how much guilt you actually experience about your behavior. If your transgression is large enough, and your guilt correspondingly high, there should be a good chance your confession will lead you to reform your behavior. However, if your transgression represents a minor lapse and you don’t feel that much guilt about it, your behavior in the future is unlikely to change even after you offer a confession. Indeed, in these circumstances, you may feel that you just don’t have the will or ability to change your behavior.
The kind of confessions that the researchers focused on are the ones that involve a special kind of revelation about the self, one in which you’ve strayed from a path you set for yourself, “making a social experience out of what would otherwise be a private failure.” Thus, the focus of the study was on behaviors in which self-control was the key area of transgression. Lowe and Haws asked their participants to generate their own descriptions of transgressions, with the only rule being that the episodes reflected a failure in self-control in which no one else was harmed, and the only person who would know about the transgression was the participant. Following the description of the incident, participants then rated their levels of guilt.
In four of the studies the participants were college students and in the fifth, they were an online non-student sample. College students wrote about engaging in unhealthy behaviors and for the non-college adults, the transgressions involved spending too much money.
The key measures of interest revolved around the actions that participants took after writing about their indiscretion in an experimental task designed by the authors to test their self-control. For example, in one of the health-related behaviors condition, participants could choose as many candies as they wished to eat, with the proviso that they had to be eaten in the lab. In the money-related condition, they indicated how much they would be willing to spend on various luxury items. If the confession released their resolve to be better, then the authors predicted they wouldn't indulge as much in this experimental task, but if the confession convinced them that they had no self-control, then participants should either overeat or overspend in that experimental task.
Turning now to the findings, the predictions supported the role of guilt as the key factor leading participants to exercise their self-control. When participants experienced high levels of guilt over what they regarded as a major indiscretion, their tendency to over-indulge after confessing was greatly curbed. The confessors with low levels of guilt went merrily on their way, eating more candy or being willing to spend unreservedly.
These results have the disturbing implication that confessing can actually pull you farther away from your goals toward self-improvement if you feel little guilt for your lapses. In the words of the authors, “although public discussion of our mistakes can in some instances aid in our future adherence to these goals, it also has the potential to backfire if there is a lack of genuine guilt regarding the transgression” (p. 574). It's only when people offer confessions for behaviors that create deep levels of guilt that the event will become an inspiration for behavior change.
The Lowe and Haws findings don't necessarily suggest how to use confessions to restore your public image when you've shown poor judgment in your actions or your words. However, the study does support the importance of at least expressing a certain level of guilt when and if you do make your confession. The next time you're caught in an act (involving behavior or words), allow yourself to reflect on what you've done rather than blame your lack of self-control. A confession that reflects a certain degree of soul-searching, as long as it's sincere, could go a long way toward repairing the damage of your actions.
To sum up, when you’ve been caught in an act of indiscretion, it will take both confession plus guilt for you to turn that experience into one that will promote future growth. You may prefer not to admit to your failings, but an honest admission that you strayed from your own inner guideposts can become the true path to redemption.
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Lowe, M. L., & Haws, K. L. (2019). Confession and self-control: A prelude to repentance or relapse? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(4), 563–581. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000152.supp (Supplemental)