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Prior to, or concurrent with, the encoding of concepts into speech, the individual faces decisions about whether, what, when, how, and with whom to communicate. Compared to the existing wealth of linguistic knowledge however, we know little of the mechanisms that govern the delivery and accrual of information. Here we focus on a fundamental issue of communication: The decision whether to deliver information. Specifically, we study spontaneous confession to a victim. Given the costs of social devaluation, offenders are hypothesized to refrain from confessing unless the expected benefits of confession (e.g. enabling the victim to remedially modify their course of action) outweigh its marginal costs—the victim’s reaction, discounted by the likelihood that information about the offense has not leaked. The logic of welfare tradeoffs indicates that the victim’s reaction will be less severe and, therefore, less costly to the offender, with decreases in the cost of the offense to the victim and, counter-intuitively, with increases in the benefit of the offense to the offender. Data from naturalistic offenses and experimental studies supported these predictions. Offenders are more willing to confess when the benefit of the offense to them is high, the cost to the victim is low, and the probability of information leakage is high. This suggests a conflict of interests between senders and receivers: Often, offenders are more willing to confess when confessions are less beneficial to the victims. An evolutionary–computational framework is a fruitful approach to understand the factors that regulate communication.


This article was originally published in Evolution and Human Behavior in 2014.

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