It’s no secret that you’re keeping a secret right now. If you’re like most people, you can probably count about a dozen pieces of personal information that you’ve never shared with anyone and probably never will. It could be a one-night stand with a stranger, or perhaps you once committed a petty crime and got away with it.
There are 36 common secrets identified by researchers, and the average person keeps about 12 of them. Some secrets are harmful because they evoke shame, but others can be empowering. Insight into the reasons for keeping a secret can help you avoid ruminating about it.
Secrecy is intentionally withholding personal information from one or more persons. Keeping secrets can often be harmful in the long run, both physically and psychologically. However, according to psychologists Michael Slepian and Alex Koch, it’s not the withholding that hurts us; instead, it’s the ruminating that harms us.
What Secrets Do People Keep?
A secret doesn’t have to be extreme. Many people keep their political and religious views under wraps, especially when they believe no one else will agree with them. Some people hide their finances, whether they have a lot more or a lot less than others think. Likewise, sexual orientation and behaviors, in general, can be a private matter.
Some secrets we keep don’t hurt us; they’re nobody else’s business anyway. But others weigh heavily on our minds, and these are the ones that harm us over time. To understand why Slepian and Koch conducted a series of studies.
Their research revealed that the secrets people commonly keep can be grouped into basic categories. These range from infidelity to job dissatisfaction, from romantic desires to criminal behavior, and from having had a traumatic experience to pursuing an unusual hobby.
In the first study, the researchers asked participants to arrange the 36 common secrets into as many groups as they wished. By analyzing the groupings that people made, the researchers were able to identify three dimensions that describe each secret.
Immorality: Some secrets involve behavior that people, including the secret-holder, would consider to be immoral. Examples of hidden information that are high on the immoral dimension include harming another person, theft, or other illegal acts. Other secrets have no particular moral component to them, such as ambitions, a hobby, or feelings of discontent at work.
Connectedness: People generally keep the details of their intimate relationships secret.
Examples of secrets high on the relational dimension are romantic desire, infidelity, and sexual behaviors in general. In contrast, other confidences, such as problems at school or work, as well as religious or political beliefs, have little to do with our relationships.
Insight: In work life, we often have to keep certain information confidential. We clearly understand why we keep these secrets. Conversely, we often have little insight into the reasons for our marital or health problems, so these are rated low on the insight dimension.
In further studies, Slepian and Koch discovered that we can predict which secrets will cause harm by considering how each ranks on the three dimensions. This is because each dimension is associated with a particularly emotional experience.
Why Are Some Secrets So Harmful?
Concealing information can be psychologically damaging because the secret-holder has no opportunity to discuss the contents with other people. When we have problems, it helps to share them with others who can provide us with insight on how to deal with them. But when it comes to secrets that are high on the immorality dimension, we feel shame and are reluctant to share, often for good reason.
However, secrets high on the other two dimensions are less likely to lead to emotional harm. For instance, undisclosed information high on the connectedness dimension reassures us that we have valuable social or intimate relationships. Thus, if you have a secret lover, thoughts of this intimate connection are certainly mood-boosting, even if you can’t share them with other people.
Likewise, confidential info high on the insight dimension evokes a sense of competence. For example, knowing that you have been entrusted with secret information at work reassures you that you are a capable and trustworthy person, an empowering insight.
Of course, a secret can be high on two or even all three dimensions at the same time. Details about an affair can be high on both immorality and connectedness. Thus, information-holders can feel both shame at cheating on their spouse and the thrill of being intimately connected with another human being at the same time.
How to Keep a Secret Without Hurting Others
Knowing that secrecy mainly hurts information-holders because they ruminate about it, Slepian and Koch proposed that understanding the reason why the secret is being kept could help alleviate distress. To this end, they devised a simple framing exercise, which they tested on 300 participants. For each secret that they held, the subjects were asked to consider the following three statements, which are associated with the three dimensions:
There is no harm in having this secret. (Immorality)
This secret protects someone I know. (Connectedness)
I have a good understanding of this secret. (Insight)
Those who engaged in this exercise daily reported less rumination about their secret and generally a better mood over the following week. This result suggests that having clarity about the reason for keeping a secret can reduce the harm that comes from ruminating about it.
We all have personal information that we prefer not to share with other people. While we keep some details out of shame, others can empower us. As long as we clearly understand the reason for keeping a secret, we can keep ourselves from falling into the harmful spiral of thinking about it over and over again.