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Revealing the Entire Truth Eases Guilt

Update Date: Jan 23, 2014 09:39 AM EST

When people lie, the feelings of guilt might follow. For some people, the guilt can build up and start to take a mental toll. In a new study, researchers examined how different ways of telling the truth could ease the feelings of guilt. The team reported that in order to get rid of the guilty feelings, people have to tell the entire truth and not just a partial one.

"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 lead author Eyal Pe'er, PhD, who ran the studies at Carnegie Mellon University and is now at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "But our findings show just the opposite is true."

For this study, the researchers recruited 4,167 Americans to participant in five online experiments about cheating. In the first experiment, 2,113 participants played a virtual coin tossing game. They had to predict the answers for 10 tosses and report their results. Every correct answer earned them a 10-cent bonus. The group was made up of 58 percent male with the average age at 30. The researchers calculated that 35 percent of them cheated and out of this percentage, 19 percent confessed. Out of this group, 60 percent confessed the entire truth whereas 40 percent confessed partial truths.

In the second experiment, the researchers conducted that same coin tossing game for 719 people with 65 percent of them being male. The average age was 29. In this experiment, the researchers asked the participants how they felt before and after making the decision to confess. The researchers found that people who confessed a little, who tended to be the people that cheated the most, reported higher levels of negative emotions, which encompassed fear, shame and guilt.

The third experiment recruited 357 participants composed of 60 percent males with the average age of 30. The participants described a time when they decided to either tell the entire truth or the partial truth. The researchers found that people who confessed partial truths reported higher levels of regret. However, the researchers could not identify whether the regret was that they told a partial truth or that they confessed in general.

In the remaining two experiments, the researchers found that people were more likely to believe a full confession report over a partial one. However, they were more likely to believe a partial confession over no confession at all. The researchers concluded that for people who cannot handle guilt, they might be better off confessing the whole truth.

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

The study was published by the American Psychological Association.

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