Thalma Lobel Ph.D.


Confessions of a Heavy Heart: Physical Weight and Secrets

Important secrets weigh us down and feel like an actual physical burden.

Posted Oct 11, 2014

People keep secrets mainly because the consequences of revealing the secrets can be damaging to themselves or others. Some feel ashamed and keep a secret for fear of being ridiculed or discriminated against. Others might keep a secret because they do not want to be seen to deviate from social norms or hurt others. Keeping a secret, whether it is your secret or someone else’s, is a mental burden, a load on your mind. It requires that you always be on guard, so that the secret doesn’t slip out. Yet people often fail to keep secrets and sometimes decide to reveal their own. People frequently report feeling as though a weight has been lifted off their chests after revealing a secret. Latin singer Ricky Martin posted a public statement on his official website in 2010 explained that he used to hide his sexual orientation as a result of pressure society imposed on him and wrote, “I was carrying within me for a long time things that were too heavy for me to keep inside.” Recently Michael Slepian from |Tufts University together with his colleagues E.J. Masicampo, Negin R. Toosi and Nalini Ambady found that those who keep important secrets display behaviors that are similar to those of people who actually carry a physical weight.

The researchers conducted four studies. In the first study, researchers asked participants to recall a secret. Half were asked to recall a meaningful and important personal secret and the other half a small personal secret. Participants were then asked to estimate the steepness of a hill in an ostensibly unrelated study. Those who thought about meaningful and important secrets estimated the hill as steeper. The important secrets were indeed perceived as physical weight and consequently influenced the people as an actual physical weight would have: the hills seemed steeper to those carrying a secret.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked half of the participants to recall an important, meaningful secret and the other half a trivial secret. They found that, like those who carry an actual weight, those who recalled an important secret perceived a distance as farther than those who recalled a trivial secret.

In the third study, researchers focused on one particular secret, infidelity. They recruited participants who had recently reported being unfaithful and asked them to what extent they were troubled by their infidelity and how much they thought about it. They then asked them to estimate how much effort and energy they would need to perform six common tasks. Half of the tasks required physical effort, such as climbing the stairs with groceries or helping someone move, and half required no physical effort, such as giving someone directions or change. The more participants said they thought about their infidelity and were bothered by it, the more effort and energy they estimated they would need to perform physical tasks. This difference was not found for tasks that did not require physical effort.

In their fourth experiment, the researchers asked thirty gay men to participate in a study dealing with self-presentation. They asked the participants to answer questions while they were being filmed. Half of the participants were asked to conceal their sexual orientation, while the other half were asked to conceal another trait, extroversion. The idea was that sexual orientation is a more important and meaningful secret than the fact that one is an extrovert. At the end of the experiment, participants were asked to help move books out of the laboratory under the pretense that the lab was being relocated. But really the researchers were measuring how many books each participant moved: the more books he moved, the more willing he was to make a physical effort.

Those who concealed their sexual orientation moved fewer books than those who concealed their extroverted personalities. The more important, meaningful secret affected the participants like a physical weight.

These results show that people who carry secrets feel physically burdened and experience a sensation similar to constantly carrying a heavy weight on their shoulders. Big, consequential secrets, such as one’s sexual orientation, a traumatic experience, infidelity, and illness, weigh us down and feel like an actual physical burden.

In order to ease the burden, the keeper of a secret may find it helpful to write in a journal, speak with a therapist, or confide in a close, trusted friend. Online support groups or other safe outlets can provide very necessary release, unburdening us while allowing us to maintain anonymity. The weight of secrets can be very hard to carry; these studies teach us that it is important to release those burdens because they physically affect us.

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