Keeping secrets can be psychologically damaging, but gaining insight into the reasons for doing so can help lead to empowerment instead.

It’s no secret you’re keeping a secret right now. In fact, if you’re like most people, you can probably count about a dozen pieces of person
al information that you’ve never shared with anyone and probably never will.

It could be that one-night stand with a stranger. Or perhaps you once committed a petty crime and got away with it.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme. Many people keep their political and religious views secret, especially when they believe no one else will agree with them. Some people hide finances, whether they have a lot more or a lot less than others think.

Likewise, sexual orientation and sexual behaviors in general are a private matter for most people.

Secrecy is the intentional holding back of personal information from one or more other persons.

Keeping secrets can often be harmful in the long run, both physically and psychologically. However, according to Columbia University psychologist Michael Slepian and University of Chicago psychologist Alex Koch, it’s not the withholding of information from others that hurts us. Instead, it’s the fact that we tend to ruminate on our secrets.

Some secrets we keep don’t hurt us, since they’re nobody else’s business anyway. But others weigh heavy on our minds, and these are the ones that harm us over time. To understand why this is the case, Slepian and Koch conducted a series of studies.

Previous research has revealed that the secrets people commonly keep can be grouped into 36 basic categories. These range from infidelity to criminal behavior, from romantic desires to job dissatisfaction, and from having had a traumatic experience to pursuing an unusual hobby.

What’s unclear from this list is why some secrets are harmful while others are not. In the first study, the researchers asked participants to arrange the 36 common secrets into as many groups as they wished. By analyzing the groupings that people made, the researchers were able to identify three dimensions that describe each secret:

Immorality: Some secrets involve behaviors that people, including the secret-holder, would consider to be immoral. Examples of secrets that are high on the immoral dimension include harming another person, theft, or other illegal acts. Other secrets have no particular moral component to them, such as ambitions, a hobby, or feelings of discontent at work.

Connectedness: People generally keep the details of their intimate relationships secret. Examples of secrets high on the relational dimension are romantic desire, infidelity, and sexual behaviors in general. In contrast, other secrets have little to do with our relationships, such as problems at school or work, as well as religious or political beliefs.

Insight: In our working life, we often have to keep certain information confidential. We clearly understand why we keep these secrets. In other words, we have insight into them. Conversely, we often have little insight into the reasons for our marital issues or health problems, so these are rated low on the insight dimension.

In further studies, Slepian and Koch discovered that they could predict which secrets will cause harm by considering how each rank on the three dimensions. This is because each of the dimensions has a particular emotional experience that is associated with it.

Secrets can be psychologically damaging because the secret-holder has no opportunity to discuss their contents with other people. When we have problems, it helps to share them with others who can provide us with insight on how to deal with them. But when it comes to secrets that are high on the immorality dimension, we feel shame and are reluctant to share them, often for good reason.

However, secrets high on the other two dimensions are less likely to lead to psychological harm. For instance, secrets high on the connectedness dimension reassure us that we have valuable social or intimate relationships.

Thus, if you have a secret lover, thoughts of this intimate connection are certainly mood-boosting, even if you can’t share them with other people.

Likewise, secrets high on the insight dimension evoke a sense of competence. For example, knowing that you have been entrusted with secret information at work reassures you that you are a capable and trustworthy person, and this insight is empowering.

Of course, a secret can be high on two or even all three dimensions at the same time. For instance, a secret about an affair can be high on both immorality and connectedness. Thus, the secret-holder can feel both shame at cheating on their spouse and the thrill of being intimately connected with another human being at the same time.

Noting that secrecy mainly hurts the secret holder because they ruminate about it, Slepian and Koch proposed that gaining insight into the reason why the secret is being kept could help alleviate psychological distress. To this end, they devised a simple framing exercise, which they tested on 300 participants.

For each secret that they held, the participants were asked to consider the following three statements, which are associated with the three dimensions of secrets:

  • There is no harm in having this secret. (Immorality)
  • This secret protects someone I know. (Connectedness)
  • I have good insight into this secret. (Insight)

Those who engaged in this framing exercise on a daily basis reported less rumination about their secret and generally better mood over the following week. More generally speaking, this result suggests that having clarity about the reason for keeping a secret can reduce the psychological harm that comes from ruminating about it.

We all have personal information that we prefer not to share with other people. While we keep some secrets out of shame, others can empower us. As long as we clearly understand the reason for keeping the secret, we can keep ourselves from falling into the harmful spiral of thinking about it over and over again.


Source: Slepian M. L. & Koch, A, A (2021). Identifying the dimensions of secrets to reduce their harms. Journey of Personality and Social Psychology, 120, 1431-1456 / Psychology Today

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