I recently saw a talk given by a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Business School who presented fascinating work on inequality (and who seemed like a genuinely lovely person to boot). This blog post was not inspired by the content of the talk, interesting as it was, but by a moment of vulnerability on the part of the speaker. Toward the end of his presentation, he disclosed to the audience that he had done a very involved study and found nothing—no significant results.
To give a bit of backstory: Social psychology is undergoing something of a revolution, as a result of evidence suggesting that some findings in the literature have not replicated, and in light of the fact that the flexibility in our analyses can allow research teams to publish results that are statistically significant, but that don’t actually exist in reality. For many years, there was pressure in the field to publish neat, surprising, and compelling stories. The ongoing conversation has thankfully led to increased awareness about how we can as a field better our science, but the pressure to present flashy findings still exists to some extent. (This problem is not unique to social psychology).
But something curious happened when the speaker disclosed his null results: I didn’t think less of him. Precisely the opposite, actually—I immediately liked him more. And in fact, my reaction was consistent with fascinating work on information disclosure, spearheaded by the psychologist Leslie John, which suggests that people like us more when we share information about ourselves, even if that information seems unflattering.
In one study, done in the context of romantic relationships, John and colleagues presented participants with a questionnaire that had allegedly been filled out by a prospective date. The researchers manipulated the extent to which the date chose to disclose sensitive information about himself or herself. For example, in the “reveal” condition, the date indicated that they frequently “neglect to tell a partner about an STD [they] were currently suffering from.” In the “hide” condition, the target instead checked the box “Choose not to answer” in response to the question. Interestingly enough, the results showed that partners were significantly more likely to want to go on a date with the person who revealed information than with the person who hid it.
Another study replicated and extended this effect, in the context of hiring decisions. Participants were assigned to act either as an employer responsible for hiring decisions, or an employee applying for a particular position. Participants assigned to the employee condition were told to imagine that they were applying for a job they very much hoped to get, but that they also had a history of smoking marijuana.
Researchers asked the study participants to indicate how they would respond to a question asking whether they had ever used drugs, where the options included “Yes” and “Choose not to answer.” "Employers" in the study were asked how likely they would be to hire people who had either marked “Yes” or “Choose not to answer.”
Results showed that the employees were more likely to select “Choose not to answer.” But employers were more likely to want to hire prospective employees who had decided to disclose their drug use. In other words, there seems to be a mismatch between how people expect others to respond to disclosure and how they respond themselves.
John's results show that one reason people hold such erroneous expectations is that they tend to overestimate the negative aspects of disclosure (e.g., making a poor impression on others) and underestimate the positive things associated with it, like earning a person's trust.
The lesson seems to be that, contrary to popular wisdom, people like you more when you disclose, not hide, sensitive or unflattering information. And I'd like to add that there's a possibility that disclosers might actually feel happier when they share such information, no matter what the other person thinks of them. Maybe there's something liberating about taking a leap of faith and being genuine that allows you to walk away with your head held high, in addition to increasing the likelihood that others like you—a rare win-win situation.
John, L. K., Barasz, K., and Norton, M. I. (2016). Hiding personal information reveals the worst. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(4), 954-959.