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The Damaging Psychological Effects of Keeping Secrets

New evidence shows how much secrecy can hurt us — but there are ways we can avoid it

Grant H Brenner
Jan 23, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo: Juan Jimenez / EyeEm / Getty Images

Common wisdom tells us that keeping secrets can take a terrible toll and that revealing information can be a step toward recovery. The bigger the secret, the harder it is to keep it and the greater the potential conflict. Is one friend cheating on another, but you don’t know if you should say anything? Are you having financial difficulties but don’t want to tell your partner? Are you looking for another job on the down low but having trouble playing your cards close to the vest with work friends?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to secrets, and we often opt for keeping whatever it is quiet even when we know it will come to no good. Why is that? Secrets are powerful, and openness is powerful—but all too often, secrecy seems like the path of least resistance.

Plenty of research exists to show that opening up—or “self-disclosure”—promotes intimacy. For example, certain studies of couples suggest that couples who talk about important relationship issues with other couples enjoy greater intimacy by a self-assessed measure of passionate love and relationship satisfaction. Women responded more strongly not only to self-disclosure but also to responsiveness.

Secrecy can both preserve and destroy intimate relationships.

Keeping secrets limits responsiveness by preventing people from acting naturally and sharing freely. Beyond that, keeping secrets may actually cause harm. Columbia University researchers demonstrated in a study of 13,000 secrets that people may become distracted by secrets, leading to preoccupation with them, decreased feelings of authenticity, and a reduced sense of well-being about satisfaction with one’s life.

We can often tell, or at least suspect, when someone has a secret based on changes in behavior, nervousness, superficial explanations, efforts to redirect the conversation, telltale signs of deceit, and so forth. Secrecy can both preserve and destroy intimate relationships.

The psychology of secrecy

According to researchers like Michael Slepian and Adam Galinsky at Columbia University and Nir Halevy at Stanford University, who have been intensively studying the many facets of secrets, there are clear reasons why keeping charged information to ourselves feels draining and worse. The goal of secrecy, after all, is concealment of information from one or more people. There is a difference between information that must be kept secret and personal information that we may not have shared but would without fear of consequences if it came up.

People who have studied the psychology of secrecy explain that secrets create “motivational conflict,” where the goal to avoid the social costs of the information being revealed conflicts with the goal to connect with others and maintain intimacy by sharing the information. Because keeping secrets can undermine social relationships, secrecy can lead to isolation and feelings of loneliness in extreme cases.

Holding secrets also takes energy. It’s tiring, and sometimes impossible, to keep a secret. The exercise of will and vigilance in being careful with what one says uses emotional and cognitive resources and can leave a residue of negative feelings, like guilt. Even when we are not around people, we still spend energy on keeping secrets to varying extents. No matter how you slice it, the theory says, secrecy is fatiguing in how it uses up limited resources.

Could keeping secrets affect our well-being then? It’s complicated and not well studied.

Seven experiments that dissect secrecy

In order to get a better understanding of what happens to us when we keep secrets, Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky designed a series of seven experiments to look at various factors to see if and when keeping a secret is fatiguing, under what circumstances, and whether the cost of secret-keeping is seen in real-world consequences, including effects on performance and grit.

In each experiment, online surveys were used to catch a glimpse of a broader population than college students’ psychological research often uses, with 200 participants in each of the first five experiments and 400 in the other two experiments, with the average age in the mid-thirties. Participants were asked to think about a consequential secret they intended to keep to themselves and compare it with important personal information they had not yet shared and did not mean to keep secret. The researchers looked at measures of social isolation, which is thought to reflect motivational conflict because greater conflict about secrets leads to increased feelings of (and possibly actual) isolation.

The broad experimental setup was multilayered. In the first experiment, they looked at whether keeping secrets increased feelings of fatigue indirectly as a result of social isolation. They found that those who kept secrets reported greater fatigue specifically related to the effort of keeping that info to themselves and that a significant portion of this fatigue was connected with resulting feelings of social isolation.

The next three experiments looked at how strong personal feelings might influence the impact of secret-keeping. In experiment two, participants were asked about information accompanied by feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment. Experiment three looked at the effect of underlying ambitions that might offset the problematic aspects of secrets—for example, holding more admirable motivations for keeping secrets than others realized. In experiment four, researchers considered how people felt about information that was unlikely to come up in conversation. We worry less about something unlikely to come up than topics we may not be able to avoid.

Having a “good reason” to keep a secret seems to have a fatigue-protective effect but still leaves a person feeling cut off.

The fatiguing effect of secrecy, related in part to social isolation, generally held true even after controlling for negative feelings and the low likelihood of information coming up. However, for experiment three, where mitigating private ambition was present behind the secret, fatigue was not higher, although those participants did still report greater feelings of social isolation related to keeping the secret. Having a “good reason” to keep a secret seems to have a fatigue-protective effect but still leaves a person feeling cut off. It may be that, over time, keeping secrets even for good reasons may be a significant drain—a factor that future research can investigate.

In experiment five, the researchers moved away from participants reporting on their feelings and looked to measures of behavior, like persistence and task performance. Participants were asked to think of secret versus non-secret information, estimate social isolation, and then perform a task unscrambling anagrams. Researchers measured how well they did and how many puzzles they solved. They again saw a connection between secret-keeping and social isolation. In addition, they showed that secrecy, indirectly via social isolation, reduced both persistence and performance. They went on to show that performance is most impacted by reduced persistence, which itself is related to social isolation-induced fatigue.

The last two experiments looked deeper into the details of emotion and motivational conflict. Researchers asked about emotions using the PANAS-X (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule for sadness, fear, hostility, and guilt) and directly measured motivational conflict by checking out how secrets can interfere with social goals. For example, surveys asked how much having a secret conflicts with connecting with the people around you. Experiments six and seven repeated the finding that keeping secrets was uniquely associated with greater fatigue related to social isolation.

Those two experiments further found, as hypothesized, that social isolation was significantly higher in those reporting greater motivational conflict and that secrecy was associated with higher levels of all PANAS-X emotions. They found that, statistically speaking, sadness and social isolation are highly associated with one another, measuring a highly overlapping underlying emotional state. Therefore, researchers took special steps to prevent this overlap from affecting the data analysis. When the mathematical dust settled, they found that those four emotions stemming from secrecy—hostility, fear, guilt, and sadness—independently predicted fatigue.

Keeping secrets takes work and is fatiguing. It seems obvious, but it’s easy to downplay. People with higher levels of conflict about secrets give up more easily and perform more poorly on a cognitive task. One of the main reasons for the negative effect on energy level and performance is because secrets make us feel lonely and sad. They also can make us feel more fearful, hostile, and guilty, but the sadness and isolation make us more tired.

Keeping secrets undermines our sense of well-being and general life satisfaction, and opening up (under the right conditions) can lead us to feel happier, more authentic, more satisfied and closer to others. As Slepian and colleagues note, “Secrecy creates a conflict between the goal to connect with others and the goal to keep the secret information unknown, which manifests in feelings of social isolation and motivational conflict.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as telling everyone all our difficult secrets nor is it always clear when and how it might be constructive to do so—nor does everyone want to hear it. As the theory of motivational conflict tells us, there are consequences to revealing sensitive information that, on balance, induce us to keep whatever it is under wraps. This can lead to inner torment, fatigue, and famously, inadvertent slips when we reveal secret information, often with comedic and sometimes tragic results.

People confronted with secrets can use this research to self-examine more effectively: How much is keeping this secret affecting my well-being?

The pressure to tell a secret can be so great that we impulsively blurt it out, rapidly reducing inner conflict and often setting in motion a series of momentous events—these are at the heart of many a great story and film. We can be pressured into telling secrets, and if it looks like we might crack, the pressure rises. Folks like to make trouble, often for their own gain, and telling revealing another’s damaging secrets can be a Machiavellian way to get ahead. On the other hand, revealing secrets is often the key to justice.

Secrets can range from benign and relatively free of guilt to insidious and shameful. The worse the secret, the greater the isolation and the greater the fatigue. With some secrets, there is a real conflict between the cost of keeping the secret and the consequences of letting it out, and many other secrets are kept secret under coercion and duress, out of dysfunctional family dynamics, or because of societal norms to deny and suppress inconvenient truths.

This leaves us with frequent dilemmas. We know something, but do we tell? People confronted with secrets can use this research to self-examine more effectively: What are the specific motivational conflicts I’m facing with this one? What are the consequences of keeping the secret versus disclosing it for both myself and other stakeholders? How isolated do I feel with this secret, how much does it intrude when I’m not with other people, and how tiring is it? How much is keeping this secret affecting my well-being and ability to function both socially and with unrelated tasks? What other emotions does this secret stir up? How have I learned to deal with secrets from my past experiences? What are some good ways and appropriate times and settings to open up about difficult secrets?

Armed with good questions like these and others, we can make more conscious and intentional decisions about what to do with our secrets and how to enjoy opening up with others to enjoy greater relationship satisfaction.

Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.

Written by

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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