Most people are pretty clear on what a secret is. It is a piece of information that someone has that they do not wish to share with someone else. The piece of information could be personal (someone might want to hide the fact that they once went to prison) or work-related (an employee might want to keep secret that they are looking for another job). Some secrets are even positive (hiding a surprise party from the person being celebrated).
There are two aspects of secrets that seem pretty intuitively obvious: First, keeping secrets probably makes you feel worse than you would if you were not keeping a secret. Second, the most stressful part of keeping a secret is hiding it from the people you don’t want to tell.
A paper in the July, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun, and Malia Mason takes a different approach to secrets.
They suggest that a potential problem with keeping secrets is that you have a goal to keep the information secret. Goals that have not yet been achieved are often easy to think about. That is how your motivational system gives you opportunities to achieve your goals when you see something related to the goal in the environment. For example, you are more likely to notice a mailbox when you need to mail a letter than when you don’t.
With secrets, this mechanism might keep you thinking about the information you are trying to keep secret, even when the people you are hiding the information from are not around. As a result, keeping secrets may be stressful, but not because of the activity of hiding it from a person. It may be stressful, because you may keep thinking about that information, which reminds you that you have a secret. Knowing you have a secret may make you feel as though you are not acting authentically, and that can depress your mood.
The researchers tested this proposal in ten studies. In one set of studies, they identified 38 types of secrets people routinely keep (like taking drugs or cheating at work). Then, they asked participants — who had a mean age of about 33 — which of these types of secrets they have kept in their lives and which of these secrets they are keeping at the moment.
For each type of secret, participants were asked how often they felt they had to actually avoid telling that piece of information to someone they were trying to hide it from. They also were also asked how often they thought about the information they were keeping secret. Finally, they gave information about their happiness.
People found themselves thinking about the secret about three times more often than actively hiding it. Secrets did decrease people’s overall sense of well-being. However, the decrease in happiness was related to the number of times people thought about the secret, and not the number of times they actively had to hide it from someone else. Thinking about secrets was also associated with poorer health.
Additional studies looked specifically at secrets kept from romantic partners to ensure this effect is not just a result of general secrets that might be kept from people who are not that important to the secret keeper. These studies found the same pattern: Keeping secrets from a romantic partner led to decreases in well-being, based on the number of times people were thinking about the secret rather than the number of times they actively had to hide it.
A final set of studies also asked people to rate their sense of authenticity. Authenticity means that people are acting in a way that fits who they feel they really are. Keeping secrets (and particularly thinking about secrets) decreased people’s feelings that they were acting authentically. That decrease in authenticity led people to feel worse about their life.
These findings suggest that secrets can be bad for your mental and physical health. The stress caused by secrets arises because people think about the information they are keeping secret often—even when they are not around the person they are hiding the information from. These thoughts cause stress and make people feel as though they are not acting authentically.
Slepian, M.L., Chun, J.S., & Mason, M.F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1), 1-33.