Psychology studies reveal that secrets are bad for your health—even after you tell them

Unclassified material.
Unclassified material.
Image: AP Photo
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Whether in a meeting, catching up with a friend, or chatting with a partner, we are constantly communicating and connecting with those around us. Yet hidden from these daily interactions are the things we do not say. We might hold back personal information from coworkers, hide our true feelings from a friend, or gloss over important details when speaking to a spouse. People keep secrets big and small, but what are the consequences?

Because we cannot create major secrets in the laboratory (it would be unethical, of course, to get a participant to cheat on their partner or make a costly financial mistake), the exact manner through which secrecy harms our health has been elusive. But this hasn’t stopped us from trying to quantify and study secrecy—and the results, unlike the secrets themselves, are telling.

When I started studying secrecy back in 2010 at Tufts University, my colleagues and I asked participants to think about their existing secrets and examined whether they felt burdened while having a secret on their mind. We found that when a person is encumbered by a secret, the world around them seems more challenging, and other tasks seem more effortful. This we expected.

But in these studies, our participants were never hiding secrets from us, the researchers. Our studies suggested that what is harmful about secrecy is not having to hide a secret, but having to live with it.

This seemed at odds with a common explanation for why secrecy is harmful. Prior theories proposed that keeping secrets hidden is hard work, and over time the stress from this frequent concealment erodes our health and well-being. But our experiments showed the same results, even though participants had divulged their secrets to us. While research has confirmed that actively concealing a secret during a conversation is effortful and fatiguing, we were left wondering if it was active concealment that was hurting people’s health, or if it was actually something else. Our suspicions were that secrets have their effects even during moments when people are not actively concealing them.

To examine how secrecy is related to health and well-being, my colleagues Malia Mason, Jinseok Chun, and I wanted to answer three basic questions: What secrets do people keep, how common is secrecy, and how do people experience secrecy? In an initial study, we asked 2,000 people about a secret they were keeping and found 38 common categories of experiences. These included secrets about relationships, sex, work, and money, among others. From these responses, we developed the Common Secrets Questionnaire. You can take the questionnaire yourself to explore the secrets you keep and how they compare to other commonly kept secrets, as well as learn about ways to cope with secret-keeping following the questionnaire.

We found that of those 38 categories of secrets, the average person, at this very moment, has secrets in 13, five of which they have never told a single person about. Per each secret they had, we asked a few questions, such as how often they thought about the secret, how often they concealed it from others, and how it affected their well-being. We found that people thought about their secrets twice as often as they actually had to actively conceal those secrets in public. The more people thought about their secrets—not the more they hid their secrets—the more those secrets hurt their well-being.

Why might thinking about secrets hurt us more than hiding them? People do not seem prepared for all the times in which a secret will come to mind unbidden, distracting us from the situation at hand and reminding us of things we would rather forget. We find that the more people think about their secrets, the more they feel disingenuous and inauthentic for having this information tucked away from others. This, in turn, then affects their health.

So what can you do? Talking about a secret can help, but only if a trusted confidant is available; telling the wrong person will only make things worse. If you are not sure who you can tell, revealing the secret anonymously online through websites and apps dedicated to anonymous revelation, such as PostSecret and Whisper, can also help by bringing a sense of relief or realizing you are not alone in keeping a secret.

Even when we are not actively hiding a secret, it can still hurt us, and so finding more productive ways to think about the secret may go a long way toward improving well-being.