The Costs of the Secrets We Keep 

We describe secrets as anything from “deep, dark” to “best-kept.” No matter its form, secrecy is a deep-seated component of the human experience. 

Psychological experiments historically included lab-invented secrets and simulated social interactions. But a fresher body of research explores the secrets people keep in their everyday lives, experimental psychologist Michael Slepian wrote in a new article for Current Directions in Psychological Science.  

The Columbia Business School scientist, who studies secrecy’s effects on social and organizational life, describes this emerging area of study as the “new psychology of secrecy.” It examines the motivations behind secrets as well as their effects on personal well-being. Slepian explained that it has also led to several new insights into secrecy’s influence on relationship quality, illuminating dynamics that lab experiments couldn’t capture. 

“Seeking full experimental control over the situation, early studies invented secrets in the laboratory or asked participants to conceal an aspect of themselves while interacting with another individual,” Slepian said. “But in trying to observe secrecy in real time, these studies conflated secrecy with acts of concealment within conversation.” 

People may conceal feelings simply to be polite or avoid conflict, he continued. Some secrets aren’t actively hidden because they never come up in conversation. Others involve actions that occurred months or years before we even needed to conceal them.  

Thus, Slepian and his colleagues define secrecy as an intention rather than an action. The moment we hold specific information to ourselves is the moment we have a secret. 

But keeping secrets can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, uncertainty, and inauthenticity, which can generate anxiety and loneliness, Slepian said.  His article cites several studies that illuminate these outcomes. A study involving adults who were keeping secrets from a romantic partner, for instance, found that people who perceive greater costs to revealing their secret or who fear their secret will be discovered become more preoccupied with their secret (Davis & Brazeau, 2021). Another series of studies suggests that people who ruminate more on their secret feel more inauthentic and less able to cope with their secret (Bedrov & Gable, 2023).  

Keeping secrets clashes with our motivation to connect with and receive support from others, evoking a sense of fatigue, Slepian’s own research has shown.  

Disclosing a secret can take two forms—confessing or confiding, he wrote. A confession could damage or destroy a relationship, but confiding a secret to a neutral third party can deliver some emotional relief. Slepian noted a dearth in research on confessions. But studies show confiding can foster a bond for both the confider and the confidant, he wrote.  

Slepian encouraged further study on the various forms of secrecy and how people experience them to paint a more accurate picture of secrecy’s impact on relationships and well-being.  

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Slepian, M. L. (2024). The New Psychology of Secrecy. Current Directions in Psychological Science0(0).

Bedrov, A., & Gable, S. L. (2023). How much is it weighing on you? Development and validation of the secrecy burden scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Davis, C. G., & Brazeau, H. (2021). Factors promoting greater preoccupation with a secret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(4), 1419–1435.

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