Recent Psychological Research Reveals That There's Some Merit To Keeping Secrets

Researcher Michael Slepian explores the emotional benefits of keeping positive secrets.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 18, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that not all secrets are depleting. In fact, keeping positive secrets can make people feel energized. Positive secrets are freely chosen and align with personal values rather than due to external pressures.

I recently spoke to lead author Michael Slepian, Associate Professor of Management Division at Columbia Business School, to discuss the nature of secrets and their effects on people. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What's the difference between positive and negative secrets?

We define positive secrecy as the intention to keep positive information unknown to one or more people. By positive information, we mean information that an individual globally evaluates as having a positive valence. So, the distinction between a negative secret and a positive secret is your perception. Does this secret make you feel good? If so, we call it a positive secret.

What is the secret to being energized by keeping positive secrets?

There are a few reasons why positive secrets are energizing. A major reason is that positive feelings give rise to feelings of energy.

We have more pep in our step when we are feeling good. The other reason positive secrets are energizing is that we often choose to keep them for ourselves, free from external pressure, in contrast to more prototypically negative ones.

That is, when it comes to prototypically negative secrets, we keep them because we fear that other people will think worse of us if they were to learn the information. But when we keep positive secrets, we often do so because it feels good.

This intrinsic motivation—to do something for our own personal enjoyment—is energizing. When we feel in control and choose something on our own terms, we feel more ready to take on whatever lies ahead.

How exactly does keeping the secrets you choose to hide, rather than the ones you are forced to hide, create a difference?

The difference here again comes down to intrinsic motivation. If we choose to keep a positive secret for our own reasons, this intrinsic motivation is energizing. Yet, if external pressures are what lead us to keep a positive secret, it will be less energizing.

For example, suppose you have won an award or been promoted but are not yet allowed to tell people. In that case, we find that kind of positive secret less energizing because you are not in control over the positive information.

Don't you think hiding a secret can be emotionally taxing, irrespective of its nature?

Indeed, even a positive secret may be burdensome at times, such as when we are not yet allowed to talk about it. Such a burden may not stem from the difficulty of holding your tongue in a conversation but rather from feelings of frustration over not being allowed to share it.

Is it wise to keep goals or good news a secret to avoid jealousy, and can such secrets be considered positive?

Research shows that this kind of secret-keeping harms relationships more than it benefits them. When people learn that this kind of secret has been kept, they can become offended that you felt you needed to protect their feelings like this. When it comes to positive information like this, others are not as fragile or as jealous as you might imagine. They can still celebrate with you.

Who do you think is better at keeping secrets: men or women? And what advice would you give to someone who struggles to share a secret?

We can keep a secret—from one or more people—but still confide that secret in others. Men confide their secrets in others less often than women do. But we know that confiding secrets in others has many benefits, including higher quality of relationships and higher well-being.

If you need to share a secret, there is always someone out there you can talk to. Even if you can't discuss the specifics, you can still confide in others about how you feel about the secret, which can be helpful.

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