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Depression, Emotion, Relationships and romance

New research reveals the long-term toll of keeping secrets

The burden of a secret peppers our waking life with reminders and periods of brooding.

13 September 2017

By Alex Fradera

Secrets burden minds. To understand how, researchers have previously focused on the act of concealment during one-off social interactions, showing that keeping a secret is draining and can increase anxiety. But what about the longer-term toll? A new paper in Attitudes and Social Cognition describes ten studies on the impact of secrecy day-on-day, showing how the burden of a secret peppers our waking life with reminders and periods of brooding.

The Columbia University team – Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun, and Malia Mason – first developed and validated a secrets survey with two thousand participants. From this they identified 38 classes of secrets covering a range of contexts from theft and drug use to sexual orientation.

Using the new survey with 600 more participants (for most of the paper, participants were recruited from an online portal and tended to be in their thirties), the researchers found that 96 per cent of them currently had a secret of some kind, most commonly romantic thoughts about someone outside their relationship, sexual behaviour, or emotional infidelity.

The researchers also asked participants to consider the past month and report how often they were in a situation where they had to conceal their secret, and how often their mind wandered to the secret when there was no need for concealment. Mind-wandering was twice as common as episodes involving concealment, and crucially, it was how often participants caught themselves thinking about the secret – but not how often they had to actively conceal it – that was associated with the impact of the secret on their lives, as measured by their ratings of how much “this secret made my life and well-being worse”.

This apparently adverse effect of thinking about our secrets was replicated in a survey of tourists canvassed in New York. These findings suggest that active concealment – the primary focus of most secrecy research, and tightly wound into its scientific definition – may not be the defining characteristic of secrecy, and that it may rather be the repeated reflections upon hidden information that enact a greater psychological toll.

However, this research hasn’t shown a causal link between secret-related mind-wandering and wellbeing because the results are correlational (it would be hard to test this experimentally because it would be unethical to insert troubling life secrets into people’s lives). It seems likely that the association is at least partly caused by some toxic secrets both springing into mind more readily and having their own directly harmful influence on a person’s life. However, further analysis showed that higher secret-related mind-wandering still correlated with lower wellbeing regardless of the importance of a secret or the deviancy of the information it contained – suggesting repetitive thoughts about any kind of secret can take a toll.

What about secrets that are more obviously troubling to conceal (such as hiding an affair or trauma from a loved one) – might the act of concealment itself take a greater toll in these situations? To check this, the researchers focused in further studies on weightier secrets that the participants felt guilty for keeping from their partner. Yet participants still described mind-wandering about the secret more often than having to conceal it (one longitudinal study estimated mind wandering to be 2.5 times more frequent than concealment). And again, more frequent mind-wandering was associated with lower wellbeing, both in terms of diminished life satisfaction and relationship quality.

If these results are accurate and mind-wandering about secrets really does chip away at our wellbeing, what is the psychological process? It’s psychologically harmful to ruminate on negative thoughts or memories, and recalling a secret often involves accessing such content, so perhaps the same process is at play? It seems not. Slepian’s team asked 186 more participants to either recall a negative life event known to their partner or a secret they kept from them. Participants considered the negative life event more unpleasant than did those in the secret group, but it was the latter group who reported feeling less satisfied with life in that moment, suggesting that this wellbeing drop wasn’t simply a matter of bad feeling. Rather, the secrecy-related dissatisfaction was associated with a self-reported sense of weakened authenticity.

We often feel forced to keep a secret because we fear the cost of revealing it. But this research suggests that the secret is already costing you, even when you’re not actively concealing it, through a steady drip of reminders that makes you resent your own obstruction of a well-lived life. That doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward to put aside the deception. But if you can find a way, it may change how you experience life: not just through the big release, but a freer mental space, day on day.