Skip to main content

I only glanced once at my neighbour's exam. I only slept with her once. I only ate one piece of that chocolate bar you were saving.

Regardless of the scope of a personal transgression, it can be tempting to unburden yourself of only a partial truth. You can make claim to being honest, while the person receiving your confession is spared the whole sordid tale.

But new research suggests no one comes out the winner. Telling a partial truth can actually be worse than full disclosure, according to a new paper published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the paper, called "I Cheated but only a Little," lead author Dr. Eyal Pe'er says not only does the cheater feel worse only sharing part of the truth, but he or she is judged more harshly by others than cheaters who didn't confess 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," said Pe'er, who ran the studies at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University and is now at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "But our findings show just the opposite is true."

(There may be a lesson here for City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who has made several public statements regarding his actions, but it may be a tad nuanced for the occasion.)

Researcher conducted five experiments involving 4,167 people from all over the United States, according to a release on the study. In one of the experiments, participants described a time when they had partly or fully confessed to a misbehaviour. Behaviours included cheating in school, drug and alcohol use, infidelity and lying.

"People who described partial confessions expressed higher regret than people who reported full confessions," reads the statement. "The experimenters were unable to determine if participants regretted their decision to confess or if they regretted their decision to confess only partially. However, full confessors were more relieved after their confessions when compared to partial confessors, and partial confessors felt more guilt than the full confessors, according to the findings."

In another study, "participants were more likely to believe the full confession than the partial confession, and the partial confession was more credible than a non-confession."

Among those who cheated in other online, real-time studies, confessing to some bad behaviour was more common than making a full confession "among those who cheated as much as possible in the study."

But this behaviour led to greater feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety, according to the study.

"Paradoxically, people seeking redemption by partially admitting their big lies feel guiltier because they do not take complete responsibility for their behaviours," Pe'er said in the release. "True guilt relief may require people to fully come clean."

Interact with The Globe