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Shining a Light on Secrets: An Interview with Dr. Michael Slepian

young men and women whispering a secret behind hands
by Hasagani Tissera

Everyone has a secret or has held one at some point in time. Some secrets might be considered mundane, such as calling in sick to work, while others can be considered more substantial, such as an act of infidelity or one's sexual orientation.

Why do people keep secrets? How might secret keeping affect one’s well-being? Who do we confide our secrets in? To answer these and other questions relating to secret keeping, we interviewed Dr. Michael Slepian, an associate professor at Columbia Business School. Dr. Slepian’s research focuses on understanding the psychology of secrets.

Why do people keep secrets? What are some main motives for keeping a secret?

People largely keep secrets for one reason, and that is protection. People will keep secrets in order to protect their reputation, their relationships, others’ feelings, or other people who might be implicated in the secret. When we keep a secret, we are choosing whatever internal suffering the secret causes over the potential negative consequences of the secret coming to light. Who does this? We all do. We all have secrets at some point in time, and nearly all of us have one right now. In our research, we find that 97% of people are keeping a secret right now, with the average person concurrently having 13 secrets at a time, five of which they have never told a single soul.

How does holding a secret impact one’s personal and interpersonal well-being?

For years, the answer to this question seemed obvious. How do secrets hurt us? It’s the stress of hiding, of course. But the problem with an answer like this is that it assumes a rather narrow definition of secrecy. In our work we make a distinction between having a secret, and keeping a secret. Some secrets we never have to hide in conversation. Secrets from childhood, for example. Even infidelity. When was the last time you asked a friend of yours if they have ever cheated on their partner? Never? People don’t go around asking us about our secrets. It turns out we don’t have to hide them all that often. But we still think about our secrets frequently, and this is where the real harm seeps in.

The reason that concealment in conversation is not what makes secrecy harmful is that we are relatively prepared for these moments. The whole point of a secret is to conceal when needed, and so we are ready to do so. We’re on alert for the sensitive part of the conversation, and then the moment ends. Yet, by not talking about a secret, we are not getting help with it. Our secrets often feel unresolved, and our minds often return to unresolved issues and personal concerns. People often feel alone with their secrets, ashamed, and inauthentic. The burden of a secret seems not based in having to occasionally conceal it in conversation, but rather in having to be alone with the secret, and to live with it without others’ help.

How does keeping someone else’s secrets compare to keeping one of our own secrets?  

Others’ secrets can be a burden. The more we care about the person who confided in us, the more our mind returns to their secret again and again. Also, the more we have overlapping networks with the other person, the more we find ourselves having to conceal the secret on their behalf. Concealment of others’ secrets is associated with a sense of burden, and so is having to think of them. But there is a silver lining. When someone confides in us, we take this as an act of intimacy. And so, while having to keep others’ secrets can be a source of burden, it can also be relationship enhancing.

Are there specific people who we turn to confide our secrets in, and does confiding have any interpersonal implications?

Not only do we obtain benefits from being confided in, but we also obtain benefits from confiding in others. First, people typically look for confidants who should prove helpful. Highly compassionate people are confided in more for this reason, as are assertive people who may push you to do something. These qualities line up with the two major sources of support confidants can provide: emotional support and instrumental support. The typical response to a confided secret is a helpful one, and the response has to be especially negative for confiding to backfire. And so, confiding typically pays off. Confiding your secrets is helpful not because it ends the hiding (it doesn’t, since you still will keep the secret from others). Rather, what is helpful about confiding a secret is the conversation that follows. The people you confide in typically offer advice and guidance as well as emotional support. We often feel alone with our secrets, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If secrets must remain secret, talking to at least one person, anyone you can trust, will go a long way.



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