Confessing Doesn't Always Lead To Change — Here's How To Spot The Difference In The Guilty Party

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Many of us have been persuaded by the power of confession. Whether it's to a higher power or to the persons we have wronged, we were likely taught that confessing our transgressions was the key to a clearer conscience and a better future. But does confession alone promote change in behavior? Or do we just get smarter and more adept?

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that confession alone does not determine whether a person will actually reform their ways—but guilt does.

Although confession is connected to various religious traditions, the act of divulging one's own shortcomings has become common on social media as well. There are even sites specifically dedicated to anonymous confessions, addressing an unmet need. According to Webster's, to confess is to "admit or state that one has committed a crime or is at fault in some way." So, it would follow that in order for a confession to be sincere and effect change, the one confessing must view their actions as a crime or fault.

But confessions are not always related to a sense of fault, which is why this new study looked to examine how differently motivated confessions led to different outcomes. Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they asked hundreds of people to recall a time when they'd done something ill-advised—in particular, something physically unhealthy for themselves. They rated how guilty they felt about the action, and then half of the participants were further asked to write a "confession," a detailed explanation of what they'd done (the other half of the people just wrote about a generic neutral subject). The participants were then told that the study was completed but that their help was needed collecting data for another study; researchers then asked them to pick between a series of snack pairs, most of which contained a choice between a healthy or unhealthy snack.

The results? People who made a confession and felt pretty guilty about their unhealthy choice in the past were more likely to have more self-control afterward, making healthier choices in the present. But those who confessed but didn't feel too guilty about what they'd done—they were actually more likely to keep making more negative choices.

In other words, confessions are meaningless without remorse. Admitting what you've done and actually feeling guilty about it does lead to better behavior in the future. But admitting your actions without feeling that guilt just promotes further relapse.

Although the present research specifically focuses on self-disclosure related to personal health goals, it may not be a stretch to imagine how the role of guilt plays into the sincerity of an apology and the restoration of justice on a larger scale. These findings put into context why we don't always feel totally satisfied when someone admits to what they've done or even when they've apologized. Research has found that "expression of regret" and "declaration of repentance" are two of six components of an effective apology. Without this sincerely felt regret—this inner sense of guilt—does an apology even mean anything?

Based on the results of this study, it would follow that a person who for whatever reason apologizes for actions that they do not feel guilty about might not feel inclined to change their behavior in the future. In the absence of guilt, there is less incentive to change. (This logic does not deviate from findings that men who experience guilt about sexual assault are less likely to commit an offense within the following year, compared to those who don't.)

So, why do people confess if they don't intend to change? Some studies suggest there may be personal benefit to revealing personal or private information, like easing guilt, decreasing rumination, and freeing up mental and emotional energy.

The take-away here is that our motivations and inner dialogue matter just as much—if not more—than the words coming out of our mouths. We can't just apologize; we need to care, too. We as a society need to further investigate how we can instill a level of individual investment in one another's well-being. When it comes to perpetrators of sexual violence in particular, that work needs to start at a young age: teaching young boys about consent and making sure they are personally invested in the safety of other human beings, particularly women and girls.

For anyone trying to atone for their misdeeds, just remember: In these instances, guilt is not only a totally healthy emotion to feel—it's also how you'll move beyond words and toward actually being better in the future.

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