Health

Believe it: Why a partial truth feels worse than a total lie

Jan. 28, 2014 at 9:33 AM ET

FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2013 file photo, New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez heads to the dugout during the Yankees 5-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox  in a...
Winslow Townson / AP file
If New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez had come completely clean about his steroid use, would it have made a difference? Well, he might have felt better, at least.

If you’ve cheated or committed some other kind of ethical transgression, it may be tempting to confess a little bit of wrong-doing so you won’t look as bad. But a half-lie can leave you feeling more guilty than coming clean – and will likely make others even more suspicious of you, according to recent research.

“As it turns out, partial confessors feel worse than those who confess to all—or even those who do not confess to anything, said Eyal Pe’er, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Business Administration at Bar-llan University in Israel. The research was published in the February Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In fact, “partial confessors were less believed than full confessors,” said Pe’er.

Researchers studied cheating and confessing through a series of experiments involving 4,167 men and women across the U.S. Participants, whose average age was between 29-34, were asked predict the outcome of 10 coin tosses and then report how many times they’d guessed right. They were rewarded with 10 cents for every time they were right.

The volunteers were unaware the researchers had kept track of the predictions, which meant they knew when people were cheating. Cheating rates went as high as 44 percent.

The cheaters were offered a chance to confess without giving up any of their ill-gotten gains. Even then, only about one-fifth to one-quarter confessed, with most choosing the partial confession. On psychological surveys afterwards, the partial confessors turned out to feel the worst, scoring themselves as higher on negative feelings such as distress, shame and guilt.

Pe’er isn’t sure how people catch on to partial confessors. But, “it does seem like people are using partial confessions to ‘get away’ with some cheating, while maintaining an honest façade. They think that people will believe any type of confession,” he said.

People may tell a partial-truth, expecting it will help relieve some of the guilt, but “after the fact, people end up suffering emotionally twice: once from cheating and once from not fully coming clean about it,” Pe’er said. “Their guilt about their first lie is aggravated by the new-found guilt of their second lie.”

In one experiment volunteers were asked whether they believed confessors had come clean. Sure enough, most identified partial confessors as having lied.

Maybe that’s one reason why high-profile mini-mea culpas often end up badly. Take Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez who admitted to using steroids – but only during 2001 through 2003. His later denials didn’t wash with Major League Baseball officials who suspended him last August for his performance-enhancing drug use and the cover-up. Just this month an arbitrator upheld his suspension for the entire 2014 season.

Psychologist Joseph Ferrari isn’t surprised that people are suspicious when they hear an incomplete confession. People have seen plenty of these types of confessions by now, said Ferrari, a Vincent DePaul distinguished professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.

“If you’ve told me you cheated five years ago, why should I believe you haven’t cheated more over the past five years,” Ferrari explained. “The trust is broken.”

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