Psychological benefits of ‘confessing all’ revealed – but what implications for PR?

MP resignsYou don’t have to be a politician to know that public confession of your wrongdoing can be a powerful way to manage your reputation during a crisis.

Public confession is a well-worn tactic in public relations crisis management and any number of textbooks will tell you how to integrate this into your overall crisis handling plan.

PR experts commonly cite ‘fessing up’ as one of the most effective, not to mention cheapest, methods of getting your customers, public or  employees on-side. Ethical PR pros may also advise it’s “the right thing to do”.

Psychological benefits to ‘coming clean’

It now turns out there may also be psychological and emotional benefits to ‘coming clean’. But it involves full admission – not just the bits you don’t mind sharing…

According to a recent article in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people very often only confess to just part of their wrongdoing.

The partial confession is attractive as it makes you seem credible ie. you admitted some wrongdoing and that admission is more believable than if you denied any wrongdoing at all. This type of confession can also relieve your guilt without having to own up to the full consequences of the bad behaviour.

Social scientists Peer, Acquisti and Shalvi conducted five studies involving 4,000 people to determine the existence and frequency of partial confessions, the extent of lies, negative feelings and credibility of partial confessions.

Those who partially confess feel worse – people must fully come clean

During the experiments people were asked to flip coins and guess in advance whether they would score a heads or tails. If they predicted accurately then they would get money for every correct answer. They were then asked to score how they did. Later they were asked whether or not they had lied.

Indeed, many people had lied. While people on the whole did not feel very bad after cheating on the tasks set during the studies, those who partially confessed felt worse than those who did not confess or who confessed to the full extent.

The researchers said:  “Paradoxically, people seeking redemption by partially admitting their big lies feel guilty because they do not take complete responsibility for their bad behaviours. True guilt relief requires people to fully come clean.”

What lessons for PR?

If you applied this thinking to public relations what could it mean for the PR pro who is responsible for providing advice during a crisis?

There is an opportunity to come clean and benefit not only customers, employees and public, but also the client you are advising. But if the 100% confession potentially resulted in your client losing their job, or even a divorce, would it still be such a good idea?

Much will depend on the context but in some circumstances, the opportunity to start over again and with a clear conscience may be exactly what is required.

For the full paper see: “I Cheated, but Only a Little”: Partial Confessions to Unethical Behaviour

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