The Problem with Keeping a Secret
Over the past few years, I have surveyed more than 10,000 people about their secrets. I find that 97% of people are keeping a significant secret at any given time, with the average person having about 13 secrets. Relatively little research has examined how our secrets affect us despite secrecy being incredibly common and consequential, but research on this topic is rapidly growing.
By the age of five, children develop the ability to keep secrets. Keeping a secret from a parent can perhaps prevent a scolding, but more importantly, the ability to keep secrets is a major developmental milestone. To have a secret from others is to create an alternate world, one to which others don’t have complete access. With the ability to keep a secret, people can seal off an episode from others, protecting their personal information from what could be prying eyes. But this can come at a cost. During adolescence, keeping secrets from parents is related to greater feelings of autonomy yet also to lower psychological and physical well-being. Likewise, in adults, secrecy is associated with lower well-being and relationship quality.
And this is the bind. We keep secrets to protect ourselves and our relationships, and secrecy can achieve those effects. But keeping secrets can hurt us all the same. But how? How do our secrets affect us? Psychologists have long thought they knew the answer to this question, but my research suggests they were wrong.
For decades, psychologists assumed that, because concealing a secret requires a good deal of effort, concealment serves as a stressor, over time undermining our psychological well-being and eroding our health. Yet, we should have always been suspicious of this explanation. Concealing a secret does not typically require a great deal of effort. In the very moment that concealment is required, only children (and that one friend we all have) actually struggle with keeping a secret concealed.
Although our secrets do occasionally slip out, whether from a momentary lapse of attention or a glass too many of wine, we are actually excellent gatekeepers of our secrets. Those things that we don’t want most people to know are the very things that very few people know about us. The effort involved in keeping a secret hidden from others does not, in itself, appear to be the main problem. In a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I found that the real problem with having secrets is not that we have to hide them, but rather that we have to live with them, and think about them, alone with our thoughts.
My colleagues and I asked 1,000 people about a secret they were keeping, and from their responses, we identified 38 common categories of secrets. When we asked another 1,000 participants to describe a secret they were keeping, 92% of their secrets clearly fit one of those categories. We had clearly identified the major types of secrets that people keep. We then gave another 1,000 participants the list of the 38 kinds of secrets and simply asked each person whether they were currently keeping each kind. We found that 97% of people had at least one secret on that list, and the average person had 13 of the secrets.
In another study, we asked people how frequently they concealed their secrets during social interactions, and how frequently they thought about those secrets outside of those interactions. We found that people spontaneously thought about their secrets a great deal. In fact, their minds wandered to their secrets far more than they actually concealed their secrets during conversations.
Furthermore, how much people concealed their secrets was not related to their well-being. In contrast, how frequently people thought about their secrets was consistently related to lower well-being. Concealing secrets from others does not consistently harm well-being, but thinking about those secrets was associated with lower well-being. Why?
We do not often find ourselves in interactions that are related to our secrets, and when we do, we are usually prepared to navigate those treacherous waters. Even though concealment is sometimes taxing, we are usually able to keep our secrets safe. Yet, thinking about secrets does not typically have the same silver lining. The more people think about their secrets, the more ashamed, isolated, and inauthentic they feel. So, the more our minds wander to our secrets, the more this emotional distress undermines our well-being.
What can you do to minimize a secret’s negative effects? The best thing you can do is talk to someone about it. You don’t have to reveal the secret to the person it is kept from, but talking to a third party, someone you can trust, can make a world of difference. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that when people confide a secret in someone, it does not reduce how often they actively conceal the secret, but it does reduce how often their mind repetitively wanders to the secret. Furthermore, when people confide a secret in another, the conversation that follows often proves helpful. When we share a secret with another person, we often receive emotional support and useful advice that helps us move forward and cope better. This latest research shows that, although thinking about secrets can be harmful, you can change how you think about your secrets for the better.
For Further Reading
Slepian, M. L., Chun, J. S., & Mason, M. F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 1-33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000085
Slepian, M. L., & Kirby, J. N. (2018). To whom do we confide our secrets? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 1008–1023. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218756032
Slepian, M. L., & Greenaway, K. H. (2018). The benefits and burdens of keeping others' secrets. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 220-232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.005
Slepian, M. L., Halevy, N., & Galinsky, A. D. (2019). The solitude of secrecy: Thinking about secrets evokes motivational conflict and feelings of fatigue. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1129-1151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218810770
Slepian, M. L. & Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2019). Confiding secrets and well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 472-484. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618765069
Slepian, M. L., Kirby, J. N., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (in press). Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mind. Emotion. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000542
About the Author
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. He studies the psychological effects of secrecy, the development and formation of trust, and person perception.