Who Can You Trust With a Secret?

That depends on what the secret is about, new research finds.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

dean bertoncelj/Shutterstock
Source: dean bertoncelj/Shutterstock

Sharing a secret with another person is, ultimately, a risk. You hope the entrusted party will guard your secret as if it were his or her own, but sometimes the morsel of information can be too delicious to keep to oneself. What might encourage a person to spill a secret? A new study led by psychologist Robin Kowalskia of Clemson University sheds new light on this question.

Building on previous research, Kowalskia and her collaborators looked and two major variables they suspected might lead to divulging a secret—personality factors and the type of secret. To test how these variables might impact secret telling, the investigators devised a clever ruse of an experiment: It began with participants arriving at the laboratory and meeting a research assistant—but this individual was really a confederate, that is, a person working undercover for the team and merely posing as a research assistant. There was also a second confederate acting as a researcher who was desperately looking for “missing” surveys. Pretending to be flustered, this "researcher" left the room, leaving the "assistant" charge. The confederate assistant then administered the team's pre-survey, informing the participant that it was the first part of the so-called missing survey.

This is where the plot thickened: After the participant completed the pre-survey, the mock assistant told the individual one of two secrets to explain why the "researcher" was unprepared. Participants were told either a “positive” secret (the person’s father had died), or a “negative” secret (the person had been out the night before and was hung over). The "assistant" asked the participant to “keep that a secret,” to make it clear that this information was indeed confidential (i.e., a secret).

Now a third confederate, who was posing as a participant, entered the scene. The "researcher" returned and asked the confederate assistant to help look for the surveys, at which point they both left the laboratory. Now alone, the confederate participant asked the actual participant what was gong on—and this was the moment when the actual participant either kept or told the secret.

After this denouement, the confederate assistant returned with the surveys and instructed both participants to fill them out. They included questionnaires assessing empathy and the Big Five personality traits. (Of note, all face-to-face interactions in this experiment were between individuals of the same gender.)

The results were striking.

Just under 20 percent of the participants told the mock participant the secret, but it mattered whether the secret was positive or negative. Participants in the positive condition (believing that the confederate researcher's father had died) were less likely to tell the secret than those in the negative condition (believing that the researcher was hung over). Participants in the positive condition also felt more sympathy towards the confederate researcher than those experiencing the negative condition.

Personality factors also played a role in whether a participant kept or told the secret. Kowalskia and her team found that participants who were low on measures of conscientiousness were more likely to tell the secret. The investigators point out that low conscientiousness may be related to a more cavalier attitude about disclosing others' secrets, and caring less about the possible consequences. This interpretation is in keeping with research demonstrating that people who are more conscientious show comparatively greater interpersonal responsibility and sensitivity than those who are less conscientious. Similarly, empathy was also found to be a significant factor in secret telling vs. secret keeping—specifically, higher levels of empathy were associated with a lower likelihood of the participant telling the secret.

What can we learn from this study?

It would seem wise to consider the nature of the secret you want to share with someone as well as how conscientious and empathetic the person you want to entrust it with really is. Then again, as William Scott Downey once wrote: “To keep your own secrets is wisdom; but to expect others to keep them is folly.”

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here. Connect with her through her website and on twitter and Pinterest.


Will They or Won’t They? Secret Telling in Interpersonal Interactions.  Robin Marie Kowalskia*, Chad Alan Morgana, Elizabeth Whittakera, Brittany Zarembaa, Laura Frazeea & Jessica Dean. The Journal of Social Psychology Volume 155, Issue 1, 2015.