Sweet secrets – the science of keeping good news hush hush

Most people keep secrets, and staying hush about good news – like pregnancy, presents, proposals and promotions – tends to be freely chosen, enjoyable and energising according to new research.

Conventional wisdom holds that secrecy is a burden, and good news is meant to be shared. But Australian and United States researchers publishing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated the effects of keeping positive news to one’s self, finding the motivations and effects are quite different to other types of secrets.

Associate Professor Katharine Greenaway researches social psychology at the University of Melbourne and is an author of the paper. She tells Cosmos: “secrecy is extremely common – on average, 97% of people are keeping a secret right now.” 

“It’s obviously fascinating to know, people’s secrets, and why they keep them,” she says. 

Greenaway adds studying secrecy is “really interesting theoretically because we’re social creatures. From our evolutionary past, we’ve always had to be social, we’ve had to communicate in order to co-operate. So, from that perspective it’s really interesting, why would we ever want to keep information from other people? […] It’s particularly interesting why we would keep positive information from others.” 

Across 5 different experiments involving 2,500 participants the researchers tested different elements of positive secrecy: the effect of secret and non-secret good news; deliberately keeping news secret for personal reasons compared to external reasons ; and the effects of positive secrets compared to other kinds of secrets.

“Positive secrets, we’ve found, tend to be the types of secrets people choose freely, and they actually quite enjoy keeping,” Greenaway says.

In one study, involving 194 people, participants were provided with a list of 38 common categories of good news, such as: pregnancy; won something; new possession; financial windfall; family news; and self-development. They were asked to indicate which items were relevant, and any they were keeping secret.

On average, participants held 14 to 15 pieces of good news, keeping 5 to 6 positive items to themselves.

A second study tested motivation. A new group of 600 participants in committed relationships were asked to imagine a plausible piece of good news (from the list of common good news). 

They were randomly assigned to imagine either: deciding to keep the news secret until they chose share it with their partner, or the information remaining unknown due to external factors like being in meetings all day. For a further group, no reason was specified for not sharing the news. Participants were then asked about how “tired, depleted, weak, passive, active, invigorated, strong, energized, awake and alert, and alive they felt” on a scale from not at all ‘1’ to very much ‘7’.

When people elected to keep a piece of good news private, they felt energised. But when external factors got in the way of sharing information, they felt fatigued.

Three further experiments tested the effect of positive or negative secrets. Finding positive secrets were more likely to be kept for personal reasons, freely chosen, generating greater feelings of energy.

“When people keep a positive secret as opposed to a different type of secret, they tend to have relatively more intrinsic motivation for doing so. Intrinsic motivation is associated with feeling like something is really important, personally valuable to you. And also enjoyable,” says Greenaway.

“If you’ve kept a negative secret, often you’re worried about what would happen if that secret got out […] you feel as though that’s something that’s being imposed on you, as opposed to something that you’re freely choosing to keep secret from others.”

Prior research has mostly focused on negative secrets, suggesting secrecy can be harmful.

In contrast, this new research suggests holding on to positive news is more likely to be freely chosen, for personal reasons, and can be more energising than sharing the information.

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