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Research: Keeping secrets is harmful to your health

Although many people successfully conceal their secrets, new research from Columbia Business School reveals that there are harmful personal effects just from thinking about secrets.

The authors state that it is common tendency for people to mentally revisit their past transgressions, which leads to a lower sense of well-being or unhappiness. This is because secrets serve as a reminder that individuals are masking part of themselves, which leads them to feel inauthentic. This cycle can hurt or destroy relationships and negatively impact our overall health.

“People anticipate that, once in a while, they will need to hide their secrets; they do so and move on,” said Michael Slepian, co-author of the study and assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School. “However, people don’t expect their secrets to spontaneously pop into their heads when irrelevant to the task or current situation at hand. This seems to be the real downside of having secrets from others.”

The research, “The Experience of Secrecy,” explores the common practice of keeping secrets and uncovers the physical and psychological consequences of this internal struggle. Past empirical work on secrecy has focused on the effects that withholding information in social interactions have on secret keepers. With this most recent research, the authors find that the biggest problem with having secrets is that people frequently think about them even in irrelevant situations, such as thinking about fraudulent acts while brushing teeth or shopping at the grocery store.

For example: Although people who are keeping a past infidelity secret from their partner do encounter situations that require them to actively conceal their infidelity, this turns out to not be a very common experience. The research shows that a far more common occurrence is people thinking about the infidelities when their partner is absent.

“Secrets exert a gravitational pull on our attention, and it’s the cyclical revisiting of our mistakes that explains the harmful effects that secrets can have on our well-being and relationship satisfaction,” said Malia Mason, co-author of the study and associate professor of management at Columbia Business School. “... Keeping secrets can also shift a person’s focus from the task at hand to their secrets, which clearly can have a detrimental effect on task performance.”

About the Research

The research was co-authored by Professors Slepian and Mason, along with Jinseok Chun, a PhD student at Columbia Business School. Throughout 10 different studies, the researchers analyzed more than 13,000 secrets and discovered the 38 most common secrets kept, which can be seen in the graphic below, along with whether participants in the study admitted to sharing the secret or keeping it private:

To learn more and obtain a copy of the full study, visit the website keepingsecrets.org, where you can explore the most commonly kept secrets by age and gender, as well as how your own secrets compare to your peers. The full study and results can be accessed after completing a quick survey on the site.

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