Dangerous Confessions: Surprising New Research on Secrets

Your partner asks you if you can keep a secret about a situation that’s developing at work. You know the relevant players and, in fact, often socialize with your partner and the very people involved in the secret. Yes, you’d like to help your partner by being a confidant and, what’s more, you feel that by sharing secrets the two of you become ever closer. But no, what will you do when you see the people implicated in the secret? How do you manage to avoid saying the wrong thing, letting on that you know about this very confidential situation? Perhaps it’s not something inherently negative, but instead involves a surprise? Your partner is planning a birthday party and doesn’t want the honoree, a friend of both of yours, to know about it. This means you have to censor everything you say for the next few weeks in hopes of not giving away any hints.

As it turns out, keeping other people’s secrets can come at a mental cost. It’s hard enough to keep your own secrets, and according to Columbia University’s Michael Slepian and University of Melbourne’s Katharine Greenaway (2018), people do have a lot of secrets at any one moment in time. The average person, the authors note, is mentally juggling 13 secrets at once. The disclosure by others of secrets to you makes for an even tougher balancing act. On the one hand, disclosure fosters greater intimacy and increases the extent to which you like the person who’s shared personal information. On the other hand, according to Slepian and Greenaway, being the recipient of a secret “may also be a burden as one must carry the secret too” (p. 220). With a secret, yours or someone else’s, you may try to suppress it, but invariably your mind will drift toward thinking about it. Mind-wandering to a secret, as previous research has noted, is linked to lower well-being because of the burden it creates on guarding against thinking about it. You’re distracted and distressed as that secret continually pulls your attention away from what else you need to be doing.

Across three studies, including two that involved experimental manipulations of secret-keeping, Slepian and Greenaway tested the prediction that being the recipient of a secret would lead people to feel burdened by having to keep quiet about it while at the same time try not even to think about it. However, because disclosure promotes intimacy, the authors also believed that thinking about the secret could lead people to feel more intimate toward the person who disclosed it. According to this view, the trust and confidence represented by having another person tell you a secret should help you feel closer when the secret pops into your head.

The types of secrets the US-Australian researchers investigated included such difficult topics as the individual confiding about a lie, emotional infidelity, drug use, abortion, pregnancy, theft, trauma, and cheating. The 200 participants in the first, correlational, study indicated whether knowledge of these secrets led them to feel closer to the person who confided in them, how much they thought about the secret, and whether the secret made them feel more burdened or intimate with the confider. In this first study, the researchers counted a total of just over 2900 secrets confided to the participants, and 610 that participants learned without being explicitly confided to. As the authors predicted, people who felt close to their confider were more likely to think about the secret and, in turn, felt an even greater sense of intimacy. They also, on the negative side, felt more burdened. Looking next at the extent of overlap between the social network of the confider and the participant, the more the confider and participant shared friends, the higher mental burden the participant reported.

In the next reported study, 237 participants (mean age 35), also completed the secrets questionnaire to find out how many and what secrets they were carrying. Participants were then primed to think about how close they were to the confider, or to think about how much overlap they had with this other person’s friends. The results supported the findings from the first study in showing that when primed to think about how many friends the participant shared with the secret-teller, the more burden he or she felt as a result. The priming condition in which participants were told to think about how close they were to the other person, the more intimacy the secret’s confession stimulated.

In the final study, the researchers assessed the impact of secret-receiving on mind wandering.  Participants read a priming message that told them either about the problem-solving benefits of mind wandering, or that informed them about the ways that mind-wandering can involve a revisiting of past positive events. Those who were primed with the problem-solving value were more likely to agree with the statement “When my mind wanders towards thoughts of this person’s secret, the reason for this … is that I am reminded of their ongoing problems.” Those who were primed with the revisiting value were more likely to regard the sharing of the secret as indicating “the comfort they felt to share their secret with me” (p. 227).

However, contrary to what you might expect, being primed to think about the problems rather than the trust features of confiding led participants to feel less burdened and, therefore, they felt less harmed by being the recipient of a secret. People who were primed only to think about the revisiting function of mind-wandering, in contrast, felt both more intimate and more burdened. Perhaps focusing on the potential for using the recall of the secret presented participants with a release from simply ruminating about the secret and how hard it was to keep.

As the authors note, “having a secret confided in oneself comes with strings attached” (p. 227). You feel that you’ve been entrusted with information close to the individual’s heart, but if you’re going to have to keep that secret from people you both know, you’ll be saddled with worry and preoccupation that somehow the secret will be revealed. There is, the authors go on to explain, “a social silver-lining of being confided to” (p. 227), as long as you can find a way to suppress the burden that comes with that gain in intimacy.

To sum up, if you’ve got a secret to keep, finding someone to confide in can help you feel better and may even increase the quality of that relationship. Keep in mind that you are also burdening the recipient of your confession as you consider its risks and benefits.

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