Telling secrets is a power move

Whisper diplomacy.
Whisper diplomacy.
Image: Reuters/Stephane De Sakutin
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One of the enduring images from the saga of US president Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey, as described by Benjamin Wallace-Wells writing for the New Yorker was Comey’s wordless departure from the event where he heard the news of his dismissal:

He made no public comments afterward, but news cameras tracked him as he rode in a car to the airport, got in a private jet, and then taxied down the runway, silent, holding secrets that even the President wanted to know.

Wallace-Wells called it the “look of power.”

That’s a look Trump has yet to master. Keeping secrets, unless they’re about his taxes and possibly damning personal information, is not his way. Instead, the president has repeatedly breached security protocols and revealed private information, most famously by bragging to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador Sergey Lavrov about his “great intel,” then sharing with Lavrov highly classified intelligence that Israel had given the US.

In April, during a phone call to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in which Trump said Duterte was doing “a great job” with his murderous war on drugs, Trump also spoke of two nuclear submarines the US has stationed in Asia should the US military need to respond to a provocation from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Unnamed defense officials told BuzzFeed News that revealing such information goes against the longstanding notion that remaining undetected is key to the mission of military submarines.

Trump’s seeming inability to keep a secret has stunned and baffled Americans, including Washington insiders. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, however, it’s not that surprising. The sharing of confidential information is thought to come naturally to a person who feels a need to shore up their social standing, because the betrayal is rarely about the secret, and more often about letting it be known that the balance of information is asymmetrical.

When secrets meant survival

Since our earliest days, humans have treated information as currency—the ones who knew how to access food or safe shelter had the power. Gossip allows knowledge to trickle down to the less powerful, so in that sense it serves a useful function. It also protects and reinforces social norms: Hearing how another member of the community crossed a line is a handy way to remind everyone where the line is drawn.

But there’s also a “troubling” mechanism to gossip, as a team of psychologists at Knox College wrote in a paper for the Journal of Applied Social Psychology:

…it can also be a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others. When examined in the light of competition between people in the same social group, gossip is very much about enhancing one’s own success in social competition.

Although revealing secrets is not exactly the same thing as dispensing gossip, some parallels can be drawn, says Sally Farley, a psychologist and associate professor at University of Baltimore, who examined the relationship between gossiping, power, and likability in a 2011 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Imparting secret information is a way of signaling trust, she explains. “You’re saying, ‘I trust you and because of that I’m telling you this information, so you should think you’re more important than other people,” she tells Quartz, “and you should think I’m important because I had this information.’”

If the facts are extremely intimate or meant to be private, Farley adds, “you’re really setting yourselves aside as a bonded pair.”

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Michael Slepian, a psychologist and professor at Columbia Business School who studies secrets and personal health, made a distinction between status and power: “Status is being respected by others, and power is having control over resources or information or people,” he said. “Controlling information that others don’t have is a source of power.”

When it’s unclear where power lies, and who ranks where, someone might rely on a “dominance display”—like making private knowledge known— to sort things out, Slepian said.

Of course, not all gossip is calculated or strategic. If your colleague or neighbor can’t keep a secret, it might be simply that he or she just wasn’t thinking, and the request to keep something quiet was forgotten in the natural flow of information.

Holding a secret from someone requires energy. As New York magazine’s Jesse Singal points out, research has indicated that withholding private matters stresses your “metacognition,” or awareness of your own thoughts. It also allows social tension to build up, which can be diffused by a revealing, juicy anecdote.

These alternate explanations in relation to the man in the oval office bring little comfort, however, and also seem less plausible than the possibility that Trump—who has a penchant for blasting his own horn, and is thought to have a deep need for validation— simply doesn’t feel secure enough in his power as president of the United States to maintain a Comeyesque coolness.

Sharing secrets can work 

Nobody likes a gossip, but divulging secrets and gossiping as a ploy for power is sometimes effective. When gossip is being dished out to us, we don’t see it as negative, says Farley. In the abstract, it’s immoral; but in the moment, our evolutionary motivation to keep track of our social networks takes priority.

Recently, neuroscientists have demonstrated that we actually see someone differently, literally, when we’re told something unflattering about them or learn to see them as a threat—that’s how powerful insider information can be.

The trick to maintaining power by controlling your disclosures all comes down to judiciousness. In their 2011 study, Farley and her team found that frequent gossipers were perceived as less trusted and less likable than low-frequency gossipers. “If you share too often, it’ll be seen as indiscriminate,” says Farley, “and people will stop seeing you as someone who can be trusted.” Ultimately, you’ll lose status.

We’re also suspicious of people who never give up the goods, of course. The relationship between likability and gossiping in curvilinear, according to Farley’s work, so those people in your office who know all the secrets and remain powerful are probably intuitively aware of the rule: They impart privileged information in moderate amounts and selectively.

Whatever his (likely unconscious) motivation, Trump’s divulging of secrets blew up in his face. His status and likability were diminished in the eyes of many, including some of his allies.

Although National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster came to Trump’s defense, many other high-ranking officials were openly outraged by all the implications of Trump’s loose lips. Israeli officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told a reporter: “There is a special understanding of security cooperation between our countries. To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed.”