The Harms of Secrecy
For the very reason that we tend to not talk about our secrets with others, we often fail to obtain important insights into our secrets, feel isolated and alone with our secrets, and even feel ashamed for having secrets. And yet, we all keep secrets despite having potential confidants all around us. The research is clear: If you can find someone to talk to whom you can trust, you’re highly likely to be better off doing so. But even if you are not ready to talk about a secret, there are paths forward.
Not All Secrets Are Alike
Different secrets call for different coping strategies. People tend to keep the same kinds of personal details secret—for example, drug use, infidelity, addictions, ambitions—but how can we compare these secrets to each other? To find out, Alex Koch (at the University of Chicago) and I made a list of 36 common categories of secrets (pictured below), and we asked research participants to arrange the secrets in space so that more similar secrets were closer together and more dissimilar secrets were farther apart. We considered every possible arrangement of the secrets that could fit the results, and with the help of many research participants, we were able to draw out the graph below.
On the graph, each bubble represents where people tend to place that secret. The size of the bubble represents how immoral that secret was perceived to be, the further the bubbles are to the right, the more relationship-oriented the secrets are, and the closer to the top, the more profession/goal-oriented.
The graph shows that the more our participants believed that they did something wrong or caused someone harm, the more they judged their secret as immoral. For example, participants often judged a secret about theft as immoral, but not a secret preference. Next, all the secrets about romance and sex were perceived as highly relationship-oriented, whereas a secret about mental health or a hobby was seen as highly individual. And last, secrets about work, school, and money were perceived as high in goal-orientation and related to professional pursuits, whereas secrets more laden with feeling and emotion were seen as low in profession/goal-orientation.
You can see on the graph where participants tend to place each secret, but any of your secrets could sit anywhere in this space. Would people consider your secret wrong or immoral? Does your secret involve other people or your relationships with them? Does your secret relate to your goals or aspirations?
Answering these three questions tells you where your secret sits in this space, but most importantly, your answers also point you to your best path forward for better coping.
The Links to Well-Being
Each of the dimensions on the graph has a corresponding experience linked with well-being. We found that the more immoral a secret is, the more ashamed people feel. The less relationship-oriented the secret (that is, the more it is individually-oriented), the more isolated people feel. And the less profession/goal-oriented the secret (that is, the more it is based in feeling and emotion), the less insight people feel they have into the secret.
The way to use this research for better coping is to identify the way(s) in which your secrets are NOT hurting you. Each of the harms has its opposite:
- Rather than causing shame, a secret may feel not wrong or immoral to keep (such as a secret ambition).
- Rather than causing isolation, a secret can foster feelings of closeness and bring people together (for example, a secret relationship).
- Rather than causing uncertainty, you may feel that you understand the secret and your reasons for keeping it (such as discontent with your job).
Ask yourself: Which of these best fits your situation? When we helped people recognize that there was a manner in which their secret didn’t hurt, this enabled our participants to feel more confident and capable of coping with their secret. In a follow-up study, we found that this improved outlook was associated with better daily well-being.
Our secrets often harm our well-being, but they don’t have to.
For Further Reading
Slepian, M.L. & Koch, A. (2021). Identifying the dimensions of secrets to reduce their harms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000202
Slepian, M.L. (2021). A process model of having and keeping secrets. Psychological Review. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000282
Slepian, M. L., & Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2019). Confiding secrets and well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 472-484. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618765069
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. He studies the psychological effects of secrecy, the development and formation of trust, and person perception.