How Does Keeping Secrets Harm Us?

The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness. —Niels Bohr

Common wisdom tells us that keeping secrets can take a terrible toll, and revealing information can be a step toward recovery. The bigger the secret, the harder to keep it, the greater the potential conflict. Is one friend cheating on another, but you don’t know if you should say anything? Are you having financial difficulties but don’t want to tell your partner? Are you looking for another job on the down-low and having trouble playing your cards close to the vest with work friends?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secrets, and we are often party to keeping whatever it is quiet, even when we know it will come to no good. Why is that? Secrets are powerful and openness is powerful, but all too often secrecy seems like the path of least resistance.

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Secrecy can reduce well-being while sharing can increase satisfaction

There is plenty of research which shows that opening up, in jargon-ese “self-disclosure,” promotes intimacy. For example, research shows that couples who talk together about important relationship issues with other couples enjoy greater intimacy as reflected in measures of passionate love and relationship satisfaction. Women responded more strongly, not only to self-disclosure but also to responsiveness.

Keeping secrets limits responsiveness by preventing people from acting naturally and sharing freely. Beyond that, keeping secrets may actually cause harm. Slepian and colleagues (2017), demonstrated in a study of 13,000 secrets, that people may become distracted by secrets, leading to preoccupation with them, decreased feelings of authenticity, and a reduced sense of well-being about satisfaction with one’s life. We can often tell, at least suspect, when someone has a secret from changes in behavior, nervousness, superficial explanations, efforts to redirect the conversation, telltale signs of deceit, and so forth. Secrecy can both preserve and destroy intimate relationships.

What is the psychology of secrecy?

According to researchers Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky from Columbia and Stanford Universities, who have been intensively studying the many facets of secrets (e.g. who do we trust with secrets?) there are good reasons why keeping charged information to ourselves is draining, or worse. First of all, the goal of secrecy is concealment, concealment of information from one or more other people. There is a difference between information which must be kept secret and personal information which we may not have shared, but we would if it came up without fear of consequences.

So, researchers write, secrets necessarily create “motivational conflict”—”The goal to avoid the social costs of the information coming out conflicts with the goal to connect with others and maintain intimacy in close relationships by sharing the secret information.” Because keeping secrets can undermine social relationships, secrecy can lead to feelings of loneliness and lead to isolation, in extreme cases. And holding secrets takes energy. It’s tiring to keep a secret, sometimes impossible.

It requires an exercise of will, vigilance over what one says, overall using emotional and cognitive resources, and leaving one with a residue of potentially negative feelings, including guilt… along with how prudent it can be to keep one’s own council and hold one’s tongue. No matter how you slice it, the theory says, keeping secrets is fatiguing, using up limited resources. Could keeping secrets even affect our well-being? We keep secrets when we are with people, and to varying extents, we have secrets on our minds when we are not with people. It’s complicated, and not well studied.

7 experiments that dissect secrecy

In order to get a better understanding of the what happens to us when we keep secrets, Slepian and colleagues designed a series of 7 experiments to look at various factors, to see if and when keeping a secret is fatiguing, under what circumstances, and whether the cost of secret-keeping is seen in real-world consequences, including effects on performance and grit.

In each experiment, online surveys were used to catch a glimpse of a broader population than the college students psychological research often uses, with 200 participants in each experiment from 1-5, and 400 in each for experiments 6 and 7, average age in the mid 30s. Participants were asked to think about a consequential secret they intended to keep to themselves and compare it with important personal information which they had not yet shared and did not mean to keep secret. They looked at measures of social isolation, thought to reflect motivational conflict because greater conflict about secrets leads to increased feelings of (and possibly actual) isolation.

The broad experimental set-up is multi-layered. In the first experiment, they looked at whether keeping secrets increased feelings of fatigue indirectly, as a result of social isolation. They found that those who kept secrets reported greater fatigue specifically related to the effort of keeping that info to themselves, and that a significant portion of this fatigue was connected with resultant feelings of social isolation.

The next three experiments (2, 3 & 4) looked at how strong personal feelings might influence the impact of secret-keeping. In experiment 2, participants were asked about information accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment. Experiment 3 looked at the effect of underlying ambitions which might offset the problematic aspects of secrets, for example holding admirable motivations for keeping secrets than others realized. In experiment 4, researchers considered how people felt about information which unlikely to come up in conversation. We worry less about something unlikely to come up than topics we may not be able to avoid.

The fatiguing effect of secrecy, related in part to social isolation, generally held true, even after controlling for negative feelings and low likelihood of information coming up. However, for experiment 3, where mitigating private ambition was present behind the secret, fatigue was not higher, although those participants did still report greater feelings of social isolation related to keeping the secret. Having a “good reason” to keep a secret seems to have a fatigue-protective effect, but still leaves one feeling cut off. It may be that over time, even keeping secrets for good reasons may be a significant drain, a factor future research can investigate.

In experiment 5, participants moved away from reporting on feelings and rather looked to measures of behavior, including persistence and task performance. They were asked to think of secret versus non-secret information, estimate social isolation, and then perform a puzzle-solving task unscrambling anagrams. Researchers measured how well they did and how many puzzles they solved. They again saw a connection between secret-keeping and social isolation. In addition, they showed that secrecy, indirectly via social isolation, reduced both persistence and performance. They went on to show that performance is most impacted by reduced persistence, which itself related to social isolation-induced fatigue.

The last two experiments, 6 and 7, dived deeper into the details of emotion and motivational conflict. Researchers asked about emotions using the PANAS-X (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, for sadness, fear, hostility and guilt, and directly measured motivational conflict by checking out how secrets can interfere with social goals (“affiliation goals”). For example, surveys asked, “How much does having this secret” or “information unknown to others” “conflict with your goal to connect with other people” or “your goal to be close to the people around you?” and so on. Experiments 6 and 7 repeated the finding that keeping secrets was uniquely associated with greater fatigue related to social isolation.

Furthermore, experiments 6 and 7 found that social isolation was significantly higher in those reporting greater motivational conflict, as hypothesized. They also showed that secrecy was associated with higher levels of all PANAS-X emotions: hostility, fear, guilt, and sadness. They found that statistically speaking, sadness and social isolation are highly associated with one another, measuring a highly overlapping underlying emotional state. Therefore, researchers took special steps to prevent this overlap from affecting the data analysis.

When the mathematical dust settled, they found that, regardless of fear, hostility or guilt, social isolation stemming from secrecy independently predicted fatigue.

What are the implications for keeping or disclosing secrets?

Keeping secrets takes work and is fatiguing. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to downplay… at our peril. People with higher levels of conflict about secrets give up more easily and perform more poorly on a cognitive task. One of the main reasons for the negative effect on energy level and performance is because secrets make us feel lonely and sad. They also can make us feel more fearful, hostile and guilty, but the sadness and isolation make us more tired.

Keeping secrets undermines our sense of well-being, of general life satisfaction, and opening up (under the right conditions) can lead us to feel happier, more authentic, more satisfied and closer to others. As Slepian and colleagues note, “Secrecy creates a conflict between the goal to connect with others and the goal to keep the secret information unknown, which manifests in feelings of social isolation and motivational conflict.”

Opening up?

Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy as to go around telling everyone all our difficult secrets, nor is it always clear when and how it might be constructive to do. Nor does everyone want to hear it. As the theory of motivational conflict tells us, there are consequences to revealing sensitive information which on balance induce use to keep whatever it is under wraps. This can lead to inner torment, fatigue, and famously, inadvertent slips when we reveal secret information, often with comedic and sometimes sadly tragic results. The pressure to tell a secret can be so great, we impulsively blurt it out, rapidly reducing inner conflict and often setting in motion a series of momentous events, which are at the heart of many a great story and film. We can be pressured into telling secrets, and if it looks like we might crack, the pressure rises. Folks like to make trouble, often for their own gain, and telling revealing another’s damaging secrets can be a Machiavellian way to get ahead. On the other hand, revealing secrets is often the key to justice.

Secrets can range from more benign to more insidious and shameful. The worse the secret, the greater the isolation and the greater the fatigue. While for many secrets, there is a real conflict between the cost of keeping the secret and the consequences of letting it out, there are many secrets which are kept secret under coercion and duress, out of dysfunctional family dynamics, and societal norms to deny and suppress inconvenient truths.

The dilemma

This leaves us with frequent dilemmas. We know something, but do we tell? Is it better to share your concerns with a best friend about their partner’s fidelity and risk harming your relationship in the near-term, or keep it quiet, preserving the friendship while enduring guilt and the fear that your friend may realize you let it go on longer than necessary? Are you up front with your boss that you are thinking of a career change, or do you keep it under wraps, risking burning bridges? Because we are social creatures, we can come to depend on others not rejecting us. Rejection causes social pain, akin to physical pain, and from an evolutionary point of view being cast out of the group is an existential, survival threat.

People confronted with secrets can use this research to self-examine more effectively. What are the specific motivational conflicts I’m facing with this one? What are the consequences of keeping versus disclosing the secret, for myself and other stakeholders? How isolated do I feel with this secret, how much does it intrude when I’m not with other people, and how tiring is it? How much is keeping this secret affecting my well-being, and ability to function, both socially and with unrelated tasks? What other emotions is keeping this secret stirring up? How have I learned to deal with secrets from my past experiences? What are some good ways, and appropriate times and settings, to open up about difficult secrets?

Armed with good questions, these and others, we can make more conscious and intentional decisions about what to do with our secrets, and how to enjoy opening up with others to enjoy greater relationship satisfaction and passion.

References

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

Slepian, M. L., Halevy, N., & Galinsky A. D. (2018).The Solitude of Secrecy: hinking About Secrets Evokes Goal Conflict and Feelings of Fatigue. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1–23.

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Grant Hilary Brenner, MD

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Grant Hilary Brenner, MD, FAPA is a psychiatrist and an expert on mental health, relationships, and self-care and wellness who has…

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