Everyone’s got secrets. But our fears of what will happen if they are told might be overblown, according to new US psychology research.
The researchers undertook a whopping 12 different experiments with several hundred participants in total about secrecy, publishing their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Keeping negative interpersonal secrets can diminish well-being, yet people nevertheless keep negative information secret from friends, family, and loved ones to protect their own reputations,” the researchers write in their paper.
“Twelve experiments suggest these reputational concerns are systematically miscalibrated, creating a misplaced barrier to honesty in relationships.”
The team looked at a number of different scenarios, including hypothetical ones like below:
“You are in a relationship with X. You and X have always had a strong relationship: you communicate openly with them and you respect each other’s values.
However, something that X does not know is that you smoked cigarettes for about a year, ending a week ago. You started smoking at around the same time as your friends at work and thought this would be a good way to bond. You were able to keep this from X because you smoked only at work and changed your clothes afterward. During the time you smoked you became somewhat addicted, but one week ago you quit.
You have been open with X about other aspects of your personal life but you have never revealed that you smoked cigarettes. You very much regret your decision to begin smoking and feel remorseful for having hidden this habit from X.”
The researchers found that in scenarios like this, the person with the secret (known as the ‘revealer’ in the paper) consistently thought the judgement they’d receive from the person they’d told was worse than what actually happened.
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“When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message,” says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor in marketing research at the University of Texas.
“But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and vulnerability.”
This was the same across a variety of relationships – from strangers to partners – and with both small and large secrets. However, other research has looked at positive secrets and found different results.
“The magnitude of what you’re revealing can impact people’s evaluations, but it also impacts your expectations of those evaluations,” Kumar says.
Then there’s the impact of people carrying around these secrets, which the researchers think can be damaging for our wellbeing.
“Concealing negative information as a secret may also be burdensome, harming well-being by creating shame or guilt for withholding information from a relationship partner,” the researchers write.
“Overestimating the reputational costs of disclosing negative information might leave people carrying a heavier burden of secrecy than would be optimal for their own wellbeing.”