Can You Keep a Secret?

What harm comes from keeping secrets?

Posted Jul 12, 2019

Who do you tell your secrets to and who tells you their secrets? Secrets are like currency and we typically only share them with people that we trust. When someone shares a secret with us, it often strokes our ego knowing that someone trusts us enough or esteems us enough to share their personal currency with us.

While most secrets adults hold address some pretty serious content, it is clear that we learn early the value and power of secrecy. Researchers (Liberman & Shaw, 2018) have found that we understand the weight of secrets by around 6 years of age as that’s when we begin to realize that secrets are typically shared between people we’d consider friends. In fact, young kids are able to guess social connections between people based on circles of shared secrets.

Carrying a Secret feels like an Actual Burden

When you have a secret that you’re trying to keep to yourself, researchers have found that its weight can physically affect you (Slepian, Masicampo, Toosi, & Ambady, 2012). Secrets, in effect, can weigh you down and alter your perceptions and energy level. Specifically, they found that when you carry what you feel to be a heavy secret, you overestimate the effort that physical tasks will require, overestimate distances between two points, believe hills to be steeper than they actually are, and make you less likely to help someone else with a favor.

Blame your Wandering Mind

While we might at first believe that it’s the concealing of the secret that is taxing our energy reserves and clouding our perceptions, it turns out that it’s not so much the “keeping of the secret” that affects us, but the amount of mental energy, via our “wandering mind,” that creates the problem.

Slepian, Chun, and Mason (2017) conducted a host of experiments to see what it was about secret keeping that wore us down. What their ten experiments revealed was that the active act of concealment happened much less often than incidences in which a person’s mind wandered over to the secret itself. The more our minds ruminate on something as high stakes as a secret that we’re trying to conceal, the worse we feel because we let the worrisome thoughts crowd out the happier, lighter thoughts we would probably be enjoying if the secret didn’t get in our way.

Between couples, holding secrets from one another tended to make people feel less authentic due to the duplicity of the secret-keeping. The less authentic we feel, the more our well-being suffers. The more we obsess about the secret, the more time we spend “emotionally separate” from our partner, which can negatively affect our own well-being and potentially the well-being of our relationship. When we are busy obsessing about a negative thought, not only do we make the world and its demands more challenging than we otherwise might, we also run a greater risk of accidents and injury.

Almost Everyone has Kept a Secret, but Does Revealing it Relieve the Burden?

If keeping a secret is keeping you down, should you reveal this secret to someone else? In a recent study, Slepian and Moulton-Tetlock (2019) found that sometimes confiding your secrets to another person can actually help you feel better. Revealing a secret is a way to cope with the stress that maintaining the secret causes. Not only do you feel the presence of social support in helping you cope with the content of the secret, you also reap the benefits of less mind-wandering over to the secret.

Our brains are a little odd in that the harder you ask them to suppress a thought, the more accessible that thought becomes (Wegner, 1994). It’s ironic, but a part of the brilliant way that our brain not only focuses on doing a task (forgetting), but keeps an eye on the progress of the task (monitoring). By sharing a secret, perhaps your brain is no longer tasked with the “keep it secret” command and it can be more successful in letting the secret get buried deeper since there’s less monitoring needed.

In Case you’re Wondering if You are Normal…

In Slepian et al.’s (2017) studies, they developed a list of 38 types of secrets that people tended to keep. Here are the top ten most frequently reported secrets, in case you’re wondering if anyone else is keeping the kind of secret that may be weighing heavily on your mind:

  1. Extra-relational thoughts
  2. Sexual behavior
  3. Lie
  4. Romantic desire
  5. Violation of trust
  6. Theft
  7. Emotional infidelity
  8. A secret ambition or goal
  9. Family detail
  10. Financial secret

The best way of taking away the damaging power of a secret is either to confess it, reveal it, or enhance your practice of mindfulness so that your brain gets trained to focus on the present and not get “hijacked” by the secrets you keep.

References

Liberman, Z., & Shaw, A. (2018). Secret to friendship: Children make inferences about friendship based on secret sharing. Developmental Psychology, 54, 2139-2151.

Slepian, M. L., Chun, J. S., & Mason, M. F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, 1-33.

Slepian, M. L., Masicampo, E. J., Toosi, N. R., & Ambad, N. (2012). The physical burdens of secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 619-624.

Slepian, M. L, Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2019). Confiding secrets and well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 472-484.

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.

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