Fooling Houdini

Magic, Science, and the Mind

Secret Secret, I've Got a Secret

What are the Physical and Psychological Consequences of Secrecy?

Why is it that you can trust some people not to blab about private matters, while others seem constitutionally incapable of keeping their mouths shut? It turns out that scientists have created a diagnostic, called the Self-Concealment Score, that gauges how secretive you are on a scale of ten (very open) to 50 (bank vault). Your Self-Concealment Score is like a secrecy IQ. Most people fall somewhere near the middle, which is the healthy range. The extremes, on the other hand, can spell trouble.

At one end of the spectrum you’ve got the high-self concealers. These are people who tend keep their thoughts and feelings bottled up. As it turns out, Freud was right about the dangers of secrecy. A high Self-Concealment Score is correlated with a host of mental and physical woes. High self-concealers tend to be stressed out and depressed and have low self esteem. They suffer frequent headaches and back pain. People with secret memories fall sick more often and are less content than people with skeleton-free closets. Not surprisingly, a high degree of self-concealment is a dominant feature of people with OCD. In general, these findings hold up even after controlling for various factors, including past traumas and levels of social support.

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One study reported that gay men who hide their sexual orientation have an unusually high incidence of cancer and infectious disease—yet another reason why Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a bad policy—and when researchers at UCLA tracked a cohort of HIV-positive gay men over a nine-year period, they found that the disease progressed more rapidly among men who were in the closet than in those who were open about their sexuality.

A parallel strand of research shows that talk therapy extends the life of breast cancer patients and that the newly-widowed reduce their odds of getting sick by talking out their grief. (This is true even after controlling for the number of friends the bereaved had before the death of their spouse.) Even just writing about a secret trauma on a scrap of paper and then burning it is enough to reap some physical and psychological rewards.

The connection between self-concealment and pathology makes more sense when one considers that, psychologically speaking, secrecy is a lot like lying. Keeping a secret in an interview, for instance, will often set off a polygraph machine, because it triggers the same physiological responses as lying, such as increased sweating and accelerated heart rate.

Secrecy, it turns out, is taxing. In one study, subjects were asked to conceal their emotions by maintaining a perfect poker face for a set period of time. Immediately afterward, they were given a test of intellectual capacity. As it turned out, they performed worse on average than control subjects whose emotions had been given free rein. Psychologists have dubbed this kind of exhaustion, “ego depletion.”

In a related experiment, psychologists asked a group of volunteers not to think of a white bear for five minutes. Afterward, they were given a test of physical endurance in which they had to squeeze a handgrip for as long as they could. Remarkably, those who spent five minutes trying to dislodge the white bear from their minds had lower endurance thank to those who were allowed to dream about the white bear until their hearts were content.

These studies suggest that exercising the kind of self control required to deliberately conceal information is psychologically and even physically tiring, which sheds light on why secrecy can sabotage our health and well-being. It may also help explain why, for instance, it’s harder to diet during times of stress—because restraint depletes the same physical and emotional reserves as do stress and exhaustion.

Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind.

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