“I Cheated, but Only a Little”: Partial Confessions to Unethical Behavior

In this post we will be examining a study that looks into the idea of confessions. Most often thought of as a binary thing: you confess or you don’t. This study attempts to debunk the conventional wisdom and explore the observed phenomenon of the partial confession. The study “I Cheated, but Only a Little”, by Eyal Peer, Alessandro Acquisti,  and Shaul Shalvi explores the psychological motivations and affective consequences of confession, and more specifically, partial confession. Partial confession is defined by the researchers as the assuming of responsibility for only part of the transgressions one has committed. A full confession, conversely, is the assumption of responsibility for all of one’s offenses. The overarching goal of the studies detailed in the article is the determination of the “prevalence, antecedents, and consequences of partial confessions both in simulated and real-life settings” (203). The authors cite many possible reasons for partial confessions, most notably they include minimization of consequence and relief of guilt. Before the study they hypothesize that partial confessions can lead to good or bad outcomes for the transgressor either relieving their guilt or furthering it for not “coming clean” (203).

The design of the experiment was particularly interesting as it demonstrated a clever example of a way psychologists quantify something in a controlled setting that the lay-person may think is unobservable. Study 1 investigated the relationship between the degree of one’s cheating and the subsequent likelihood of partial or full confession. In this, and subsequent, studies participants completed a short “forecasting skills survey” prior to predicting the outcome (heads or tails) of ten coin flips, carried out on a coin toss website. Payment was assigned based on a self-reported number of correct predictions out of 10, allowing participants to cheat (i.e. overreport this number). Afterward, participants were given an opportunity to confess to cheating and asked how many correct predictions they had actually made, while being reassured that they would still be paid according to their first report.

The extent to which participants could have cheated was measured using a ‘cheating ratio’, defined by the number of over-reports made divided by the number of over-reports possible (e.g. 6 correct predictions + 2 over-reports comprises a cheating ratio of 2/4 or 0.50). Confessions were computed using a ‘confession ratio’, or “the extent to which participants confessed out of the maximum extent that was available for them to do so.” A participant that cheated by six coin flips and confessed to cheating by just three would produce a confession ratio of 0.50 (204-205).

The results confirmed that confessions exist on a spectrum. Among cheaters 19% confessed to some degree and 40% of those confessed only partially. They also found a positive relationship between cheat ratio and confession ratio: larger lies were associated with larger confessions. This was an interesting result as I would have expected that those who lied the most in step one would be more comfortable lying again and under-confessing. Study 1 established grounds for partial confessions and established a link between size of the lie and size of the confession.

Study 1 established that partial confessions happen and are prevalent, but reading this article I wanted an answer to the question “should I only partially confess?”. Study 3 attempts to answer this by looking at negative feelings after confessing to cheating in the same game described in Study 1. The authors found that partial confessors actually felt the worst out of the three groups. Partial confessors reported more negative feelings than non-confessors and full confessors. This indicates that the attempted compromise between relieving guilt and getting away with it failed as the results indicate by lying again and only partially confessing the participants were worse off for dealing with the shame of confessing while also failing to relieve their guilt (208). 

Overall we found this paper very interesting because we walk away from it with tangible advice that is counter intuitive. If you want to relieve your guilt, you best fully confess. If you want to cover your tracks, you’re advised to keep your mouth shut. The authors find compelling evidence that trying to strike a balance will leave you with the worst of both worlds.

The full article can be found at this link

-Dan Meyer and Robbi Melvin

Pe’er, E., Acquisti, A., & Shalvi, S. (2014). ‘I Cheated, But Only a Little’ – Partial Confessions to Unethical Behavior. SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal, 106(2), 202-217. Retrieved March 9, 2016.
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