We Have an Innate Desire to Reveal Ourselves

Sharing things about ourselves activates our brain's reward system.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

Source: Christina-wocintechchat/Unsplash

When I was younger, every week, I got excited to scroll through Post Secret, a website where people send anonymous postcards disclosing their secrets. The website is still running and some Father's Day-related secrets, this week, include "23AndMe revealed that my biological father is my dad's best friend," "I've finally met a guy who doesn't remind me of my dad... I've never been happier," and "I know I'm to blame for my son's mental illness."

Some people may wonder why people would send their most bosom held secrets to a stranger. But it was always clear to me. There's something inherently appealing about revealing ourselves. 

I've turned to science to back me up here. 

A 2012 study conducted by Diana Tamir, of Princeton University, and Jason Mitchell, of Harvard University, examined whether disclosing about the self affects our brainwaves. They put research participants inside of an fMRI and had them judge whether a personality trait (such as "curious" or "ambitious") matched themselves, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. Compared to when they were judging former presidents, when they were judging their own personalities, the reward centers of their brains were more active. These same effects held when participants were told to decide on their own preferences ("prefer coffee over tea") or those of someone else. 

But it wasn't just disclosing about the self that activated the brain's reward centers. It was also revealing things about the self to others. In a later study, the researchers had participants bring a friend or a relative to the lab. They were put into the fMRI and asked to share their own opinions (like food preference) or guess at those of George Bush or Barack Obama. On some of the trials, they were also told that their responses would be shared with their friend or relative, and on others, they were told that their responses would be kept private. Their brain's reward center activated more when they were thinking through their own preferences, and it activated, even more, when they were told their preferences would be shared with their friend or relative. 

This study reveals that we have an intrinsic desire to reveal things about ourselves, one that is etched in our brain chemistry. The same parts of our brain that are titillated when we think about food or sex are also activated when we share about ourselves. They say being a good conversationalist is all about asking people about themselves. Neuropsychology sheds light as to why.  

Note: This article is cross-posted on my friendship blog