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Partial confessions: why it’s better to come clean, totally

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Preview of a story in our print-only Spirituality 1 2014 special section.

"The snake made me do it," said Eve, "and besides I only took a bite."

Eve and her partner Adam had it all. God gave them everything, including perfect freedom, the freedom to choose. They chose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, even though God told them there would be awful consequences.

If only they had confessed totally afterward. According to new research by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University, Mark Twain was right: A half-truth feels worse than a total lie. Partial confessions make the person asking for forgiveness feel better for a moment. Soon negative emotions emerge like the old snake in the grass. According to these findings, had they offered a full instead of a partial confession, Adam and Eve may have avoided a lifetime -- eons, in fact -- of guilt and shame and fear.

In a recent issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, scholars learned across five studies that cheaters found partial confessions attractive because they felt it was better than not confessing at all. But the partial confessors felt terrible, worse than both those who completely confessed and those who did not confess at all. In other words, the partial confessor felt guilt about the matter they were partially confessing, and then again about not telling the whole truth.

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A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: Partial confessions: why it's better to come clean, totally .

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