To confess or not to confess?

Every politician caught in a financial, voter fraud, sex, or any other kind of scandal faces this question.  For sex scandals, where the odds of surviving are virtually zero, politicians have to decide whether to leave office or attempt damage control.

As soon as the Craiglist Congressman’s photo became public, Rep. Chris Lee resigned.  When ABC News called Rep. Mark Foley (pictured above) to ask about salacious e-mails to Congressional pages, Foley resigned within hours.

But during the 2012 presidential primaries, candidate Herman Cain unequivocally denied he had had affairs with the women who came forward to accuse him.  After the fourth accusation, Cain suspended his campaign, but he never admitted any guilt.

Cain hasn’t commented on these accusations, so voters don’t know how he felt about being accused.  But psychological research suggests that in some cases, denying bad behavior can make the accused feel better than confessing.

In a recent series of studies, psychologists asked volunteers to complete a task where they could cheat and win extra money.  After the task was finished, the researchers asked the participants if they had cheated and if they did, how they felt about it.

The cheaters’ responses surprised the researchers.  People who confessed to cheating said they felt better after they confessed.  But people who denied they had cheated—when the researchers knew that they had—also said they felt better afterward.  It was the people who only partially admitted their cheating who ended up feeling worse.

So, extending the results of this study to the political world, politicians caught in a scandal will feel better if they either confess totally—as did Lee and Foley—or deny totally—as did Cain.

But a politician who only partially confesses—like Rep. Anthony Weiner—will not feel as good as full confessors or deniers.  When the sexting scandal broke, Weiner first told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he couldn’t be certain if that were him in those pictures of a man in his underpants.  Two weeks later, Weiner confessed and resigned from office.

But Weiner didn’t seem to learn from his mistake.  He obviously wasn’t fully confessing since voters later found out he was still sexting while running for mayor of New York.

According to the researchers, former Rep. Weiner should be feeling better about himself now that it appears he’s fully confessed.  Voters don’t know if Weiner has anything else he wants to get off his chest.  If he does, he might feel better if he confesses in the column that he’s just agreed to write for Business Insider.  But feeling better or not, voters aren’t likely to forgive.

Photo Source: Politico

Robert Smither, PhD
Author of ten books on psychology, politics, and finance, Bob’s areas of expertise include leadership, organizational politics, and the psychology of political sex scandals.

2 Comments on "CONFESS OR DENY?"

  1. Now THAT is a deer in the headlights photo. During the Clinton scandal Republicans attempted an assassination, not an impeachment. But they also tried to hide their unhealthy interest in the details. On TV they would always say, “It isn’t that he had sex with an intern — it’s that he lied about it.”

    No. It’s that he had sex with an intern. They loved the detail of the blue dress, cigar, all that. When Starr’s “investigation” was concluded, the information from the “investigation” went onto the internet raw and unedited. As it became clear that the House of Representatives was going to impeach, it also became clear Newt Gingrich had been doing the same thing only with a woman not half as interesting, and while his wife was battling cancer. He stepped down and they went looking for a Republican who didn’t have a skeleton in a blue dress in his closet, to be Speaker of the House. Four or five were suggested, but by this time Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine was in the action, promising to go public with everything he knew about the sexual adventures of Congress. This caused a number of them to exit the Speaker of the House derby. To find someone without a sexual history in Congress, on the Republican side, they had to get all the way down to Dennis Hastert, whom no one had really heard of up to that time. It’s a fricking parable. It’s a cautionary tale.

    When Bill, cornered, sat there and finally owned up, he was under astonishing pressure. That’s what cardiovascular damage looks like on TV. It took a few years after the presidency for the heart attack to come, but it came. Oh my God they hated him so much that they impeached him for doing what so many of them were doing.

    Crazy times.

  2. Allen says:

    Mr. Deaver’s blog is subtitled “the craft of fiction” and obviously that where he began his analysis. Military officers are held to a different standard than elected officials, since them bums we can throw out. President Clinton, the commander-in-chief of the United States, had sexual relations with an intern the same age as his daughter inside the White House. If any uniformed officer had acted similarly, he would have faced a court martial and relieved of duty. When it is the president, we call that process “impeachment”. The fact that Republicans in Congress do the same thing isn’t the same thing, since it is not a crime for them to do so. And to suggest there is a women less interesting than Monica Lewinsky is pure fiction.

Got something to say? Go for it!