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Repeatedly thinking about our secrets is a key reason they harm our well-being, study suggests

Research has shown that secrecy is associated with negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety and poor physical health.

Keeping secrets may be harmful to your health — but not for the reason you may think.

A new study suggests that repeatedly thinking about a secret — not the actual act of concealing it from others — is what leads to a lower sense of well-being and happiness, which, in turn, may have a negative impact on our health.

And, apparently, our minds wander to our secrets quite often.

“People anticipate that, once in a while, they will need to hide their secrets; they do so and move on,” said Michael Slepian, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of management at Columbia University in New York City, in a released statement. “However, people don’t expect their secrets to spontaneously pop into their heads when irrelevant to the task or current situation at hand. This seems to be the real downside of having secrets from others.”

Detailed questionnaires

The study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is actually a series of 10 separate studies. Several hundred men and women (mean age: around 33) were recruited, both online and in-person (while “picnicking in Central Park”) The participants were asked to anonymously fill out questionnaires about 38 kinds of secrets, including sexual and “emotional” infidelity, theft, sexual orientation, performing poorly at work, taking illicit drugs and having had an abortion. For each type of secret, participants were asked not only if they had such a secret, but also if they had revealed it to others — or if it used to be a secret, but was no more.

Some of the participants were also asked how many times in the past 30 days they found themselves either interacting with someone from whom they felt they had to hide their secret or spontaneously thinking about the secret even though they were not with people from whom they were concealing the secret. 

They were also asked questions about their general health, such as whether they felt they tended to get sick a little easier than other people or whether they expected their health to get worse. Previous research has shown that secrecy is associated with negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety and poor physical health.

Key findings

More than 13,000 secrets across all 10 studies were collected and analyzed. Almost all of the participants — 97 percent — indicated they had at least one of the secrets asked about in the questionnaires, and the average number they had was 13. 

The average number of never-disclosed secrets was five.

The most frequent secrets cited by the participants included having a romantic desire for someone, having told a lie and having violated someone’s trust.

The researchers also found that the participants were twice as likely to think about a secret than they were to find themselves in a situation in which they had to conceal it. For example, it was much more common for participants who were trying to hide a past infidelity from their romantic partner to think about the infidelity when their partner was absent than to actively conceal the infidelity when their partner was present. 

The study also found that thinking about secrets while mind-wandering predicted general well-being, while actively concealing the secret from others did not.  

Limitations and implications

The study has its limitations. The participants were either recruited online or in a single park in a single city — two rather limited population groups. Furthermore, the questionnaires asked people about a specific set of secrets, and it included only the participants’ self-reports about their general health.

Still, the findings are intriguing.

“The current work takes a new perspective on secrecy,” the authors write. “Prior treatments of secrecy have conceptualized and studied it as active concealment of information during social interactions. We suggest instead that secrecy is the psychological state that is brought about when one forms an intension to conceal information from others.”

The study also found that “the more a participant mind-wandered to a secret outside of concealment settings, the more it hurt their well-being.”

Revealing our secrets (so we won’t ruminate on them) is not always an option, of course, as Slepian and his colleagues point out. Not everyone has someone with whom they feel they can safely confide their secrets. Also, keeping a secret is sometimes part of a person’s job or is required by law.

In those cases, interventions that reduce mind-wandering  — specifically, therapies based on acceptance or mindfulness — may be beneficial, say the researchers.

“If participants must keep their secrets to themselves, these interventions could help in coping with the secret, and thereby improve health and well-being,” they conclude.

FMI: You can read the study online. You can also complete the secrecy questionnaire yourself (anonymously) at www.keepingsecrets.org.

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