Game of Secrets

Assistant Professor Michael Slepian’s research suggests that one of the greatest burdens Game of Thrones characters carry are secrets, both their own and others’.

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Based on research by Michael Slepian, J.N. Kirby, E.K. Kalokerinos, and K. Greenaway
“Rest easy my lord,” Varys (right) says to Tyrion Lannister in an early episode of Game of Thrones, “I am very good at keeping secrets.”

Credit: HBO

Game of Thrones is full of secrets. Characters keep secrets, exploit secrets, and reveal secrets to build alliances. “Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires,” says the character Varys, who trades in secrets as the official “master of whisperers.”

“Rest easy my lord,” Varys says to Tyrion Lannister in an early episode, “I am very good at keeping secrets.”

“Your discretion is legendary, where your friends are concerned,” responds Tyrion, realizing that he is trapped under a burden of secrecy with Varys.

New research by Assistant Professor Michael Slepian reveals the extent that Varys and other characters in Game of Thrones are encumbered by secrets—both their own and others’. As HBO’s blockbuster series airs its final season this spring, Slepian’s scholarship suggests that one of the greatest burdens its characters have carried through the eight-season mega-drama is not physical, but the mental weight of secrecy.

Secrets are not all equaling taxing, according to “Shame, Guilt, and Secrets on the Mind,” published in the February issue of Emotion by Slepian with co-authors James Kirby of the University of Queensland and Elise Kalokerinos of the University of Newcastle. Across four studies with 1,000 participants keeping more than 6,000 secrets, the researchers found that we think more about secrets that cause us shame than those that cause us guilt.

In one study, nearly 200 participants were asked to recall a secret as well as the associated feelings of either shame or guilt on a rating of 1 to 7. (Shame was associated with feeling worthless and small, while guilt was associated with feeling remorse or inner-tension.) Secrets about mental health, trauma, or sexual infidelity tended to evoke more shame, whereas hurting another person, lying, or violating trust induced more guilt.

Participants then reported the number of times over 30 days they spontaneously thought about the secret or felt the need to conceal the secret. Slepian and his colleagues found that per each 1-unit increase in shame, people thought about their secrets two more times that month. At the lowest level of shame this translated to thinking about a secret four times in a month, whereas at the highest levels of shame it was about 16 times a month.

“When a secret evoked feelings of shame, the secret was more likely to intrude upon one’s thinking in irrelevant moments,” according to the paper. This consuming nature of shameful secrets might give new context to season five of Game of Thrones, when a humiliated Queen Cersei—who has long hidden a shameful secret of infidelity—must walk through the streets of King’s Landing while a clergywoman cries “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Secrecy can have an upside, however. In “The Benefits and Burdens of Keeping Others’ Secrets,” published in September’s Journal of Experimental Psychology with Katharine Greenaway of the University of Melbourne, Slepian measured the burdens of keeping our own secrets versus others’ secrets—and the potential benefits to intimacy.

At any given time, we are each keeping an average of 15 secrets for other people, according to Slepian and Greenaway. Across three studies with more than 600 participants holding more than 10,000 secrets, the researchers found that the burdensomeness of others’ secrets is a function of how often one must actively conceal the secret on their behalf due to an overlap in social circles.

“When we are not close to people, we think about the other person’s secret only once in a month, yet when we are close to people, we might think about the secret twice as often,” explains Slepian.

But there is a silver lining to hearing secrets, he adds: the closer one is to the confider, the greater sense of confidence, trust, and intimacy from the sharing of private information. “The increase in intimacy from thinking about someone’s secret is 1.5x more than the increase in burden,” says Slepian.

Slepian, who has used examples from Game of Thrones to illustrate negotiation principles in the classroom, says that the scene of Varys promising to keep a secret for Tyrion Lannister underscores the upside and the downside of keeping others’ secrets. On the one hand, says Slepian, Varys is taking on a burden because he will have to think about, and conceal, Tyrion’s secret. But Varys is also creating a bond of confidence and trust, which is something in short supply among the dueling personalities of Game of Thrones.

About the researcher

Michael Slepian

Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division of Columbia Business School...

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