Can't Stop Thinking about a Secret? You're Not Alone.

Secrets exert a gravitational pull on our attention, with serious consequences for our well-being.

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Based on research by Michael Slepian, J. Chun, and Malia Mason

Hanna Barczyk

Keeping secrets can really drag you down. Hiding information from friends and loved ones can lead to awkward, painful interactions with others, and that’s only the beginning. We also have to live with ourselves.

“Even in those moments when you don't have to actively conceal a secret, it doesn't go away,” explains Michael Slepian, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School who researches the psychology of secrecy. “You always have it. It follows you around, and thoughts about it enter your mind quite frequently.”

The tendency of secrets to occupy our thoughts even in moments when we aren’t required to conceal them has a particularly deleterious effect on our well-being according to a new paper coauthored by Slepian, Malia Mason, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, and Jinseok Chun, a PhD candidate in the School’s management division.

Where psychologists have traditionally focused on the psychological impact of actively concealing information, the authors show that the mere intent to cover something up, even if we’re never actually called upon to do so, can be far more harmful. It’s not just covering your tracks in conversation that’s mentally taxing for secret keepers, they explain, but rather the intent to withhold information — something that’s a lot more common — that brings our secrets constantly back to mind.

According to Slepian and his colleagues, this “mind-wandering” is what gives secrecy such negative power in our lives. Through a series of 10 studies analyzing more than 13,000 unique secrets, Slepian and his team found that people spontaneously think about their secrets far more often than they’re actually required to hide them in social settings. Further, it’s the frequency with which people dwell upon their secrets — not the frequency with which they were required to conceal them — that was associated with the greatest declines in well-being.

contribute to the research

The chart above shows the degree to which people who have had certain categories of experiences have kept them secret. Individuals who have had these experiences responded that they were never a secret (blue), were formerly secrets but are no longer (red), are a secret from some people (orange), or are a secret from even one (green). Hover or tap on the bars in the chart above for more information.

To see how your experience of secret keeping compares to others of your age and gender and to contribute to this research, visit keepingsecrets.org

Previous research has shown that harboring secrets can put the body in “fight or flight” mode, with the cingulate cortex increasing production of stress hormones, which can affect memory, blood pressure, metabolism, and gastrointestinal health. Other studies have linked secrecy to chronic headaches and back pain and susceptibility to illness.

While the idea that something as seemingly innocuous as “mind-wandering” could be worse than face-to-face concealment may seem counterintuitive to anyone who’s ever struggled with keeping something really big from a close friend or spouse, the researchers point out that it’s about how the impact adds up over time.

“Think about two kinds of secrets,” Slepian says. “One, you have to hide quite frequently, but you never think about when you’re on your own. The other, you don't hide very often, but you're thinking about it all the time. Intuitively, it makes sense the second would hurt more.”

“Hiding secrets feels a little bit worse than thinking about them, but it’s much rarer,” he adds. “So cumulatively, it causes less of a problem.”

Dwelling on our secrets can have a direct negative impact on our mental state, putting us in a bad mood — the simple measure that researchers often use to measure well-being — by reminding us of negative experiences or aspects of ourselves we don’t like. But more importantly, the researchers find, thinking about our secrets also makes us feel like we’re being inauthentic, and that, the data suggests, is uniquely responsible for making us feel lousy.

“Mere pleasure isn't enough to feel like you're living a good life,” Slepian says. “You need to have meaning and feel like you're living up to your standards and values. We're not disputing that secrecy can feel bad, but it hurts our well-being aside from how bad we feel about the content of the secret itself. That’s due to the way having a secret makes us feel about ourselves, namely making us feel inauthentic and disingenuous.”

If we’re truly our own worst enemies when it comes to coping with secrecy, the question becomes what we can do about it. One option is trying to distract your brain, but as Slepian says, controlling your own thoughts is “kind of a minefield.” Once you resolve not to think about something, it’s especially likely to pop into your head, and evidence suggests that our brains keep information related to outstanding goals and responsibilities — like keeping a secret — at the forefront of our memory.

But there is some good news in these findings. “If there's a way to change how we think about secrets,” Slepian says, “that's how we break the link down.”

The ideal solution, Slepian explains, is to simply make the secret not a secret anymore by finding people to share it with. In the absence of such trusted individuals though, sharing your secret anonymously, as with the popular blog PostSecret, or the app Whisper, or even just writing your secrets down in a journal can help. Either way, the goal is to gain insight into our secrets and feel less alone carrying them. In a 2014 study, Slepian and other researches showed that people who reveal secrets to others feel as though a burden has been lifted [paywalled].

“Finding ways to cope with this information and figuring out how to think about the secret in more productive ways will potentially break this link between thinking about secrets and lower well-being,” Slepian says.

About the researcher

Michael Slepian

Michael Slepian is Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School. His program of research examines secrecy and trust. He studies the...

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