George Orwell wrote: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” Indeed, secrets place a very heavy weight on the people who carry them, and more often than not, they can profoundly affect the lives of individuals.

In fact, keeping secrets can be hazardous to your health, physically and mentally. According to Michael Slepian, Professor at Columbia University, secrecy can affect mood, cognitive abilities, behavior, well-being, and also physical strength.

For Slepian, secrets have no secrets, it is even his job! He has analyzed between 10,000 and 15,000 of secrets at Columbia University throughout his career. For years he has been trying to understand what men and women tend to keep to themselves, and how much of a burden it is on them. So let’s unveil what science knows about secrets.

How Are Secrets Harmful?

1. Keeping secrets increases stress and anxiety

James Pennebaker and Carol Chew, psychologists at the University of Texas, were among the first to investigate the harmfulness of secrets.

As early as 1985, they conducted an experiment in which they asked a group of volunteers to keep certain information secret. They then looked for any physiological changes in these volunteers.

What they found was that most of them showed signs of anxiety, such as excessive sweating. Secrecy is in itself a form of stress, and if this state continues, the consequences will soon follow.

2. Keeping heavy secrets can lead to self-punishment

Slepian and his colleague, Bastian Brock of the University of Melbourne, discovered in 2017 that the suffering associated with secrecy could lead to self-punishment.

For this study, they recruited participants through an online professional advertising platform. This method has two advantages:

  • First, it provides access to people from various social and ethnic groups. While in most laboratory studies, only students who want to earn a little extra money by participating are involved. Hence, the sample would not be very representative of the population.

  • Second, participants were asked to disclose whether they had ever misled their current partner, and if so, whether they had admitted it or not. And for revealing such information, the anonymity of the Internet is a decisive advantage.

Of the 1,500 people interviewed, 105 admitted to having cheated on their current partner at least once. Additionally, more than half of the unfaithful subjects are concealing their actions.

In addition, subjects were asked how they felt when their partner was present, compared to how they felt when he or she was not present. For example, in a situation where they received a nice gift from him/her vs. when they went to dinner with friends.

And according to Slepian, the unfaithful subjects who are concealing their actions were the ones who were no longer able to really enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

They punish themselves in some way and want to feel pain. Yet they do not feel any more guilty than those who confessed their unfaithfulness, the level of guilt is the same.

So, what makes us punish ourselves? is it the guilt that comes with secrets?

To find out, researchers studied the participants’ memories. Some of them had to write down things they were hiding. It is similar to the kind of private reflection we can have on our secrets when we are alone.

The result is that after writing these secrets on paper, people tend to punish themselves more. “But it’s only the really heavy secrets that really concern us, and pushes a tendency for self-flagellation to emerge.” Slepian summarizes. “And it is not the feeling of guilt but the rehashing of hidden facts that is the cause.”

3. Secrets affect mood, cognitive abilities, and even physical strength

Many studies show that holding secrets does have an impact on mood, in the form of stress, fear, depression, loneliness, or lack of self-esteem.

Cognitive abilities also suffer, as Clayton Richter of the University of California at Berkeley and Melissa Ferguson of Cornell University in Ithaca have shown.

Clayton and Melissa grouped participants for an experiment, asking half of them to keep their sexual orientation secret during an interview with a third person. The participants were all heterosexual, in order to study only the effects related to the mental effort to hide information, without involving the potential effects of stigmatization.

If asked about their love life, participants were instructed to give answers such as: “I date people, who…” Instead of: “I date men/women…” And after that, they took a final test designed to measure their cognitive abilities.

It turned out that participants who had to protect a secret scored 17% lower than those who were able to express themselves freely.  Even their physical strength was declining; when asked after the interview to squeeze an object as tightly and as long as possible in their palms, their results were this time 30% less than expected.

Slepian also discovered from his experiments that mountains seem steeper, distances longer and physical work more exhausting to people who keep a heavy secret about them. The weight of secrecy is very real.

4. The mind keeps ruminating about negative thoughts

Slepian suspected that the social act of concealing secrets from others is only a small part of the problem; because deep down, we spend a lot of time alone with these heavy burdens. And he tested this thesis in ten studies with a total of 1,500 participants.

To do so, he asked participants what types of secrets they had, and which ones they had hidden from others.

Only 30 of the 1,500 participants did report that they don’t currently have any hidden secrets. In addition, the other participants were asked how often they felt their thoughts were drifting towards their secrets and that they had intentionally ignored them, compared to actively hiding the secret from someone else that was present.

The results showed that the individuals interviewed felt more confronted with their secret when they were alone than when they were in the company of others.

As other studies also have shown, the weight of secrecy has a detrimental influence on well-being and physical performance, more so when the subject ruminates alone than in society. Surprisingly, keeping it to yourself when you are in the company of others has less impact on mood.

“Secrets are a major focus of our attention,” says research director Malia Mason. “And the more important a secret is, the more you think about it.”

This seems logical; when we are focused on ignoring a thought, we naturally tend to return to it (try to not think about a pink elephant!).

The real problem with keeping a secret is not that you have to hide it, but that you have to live with it and think about it. It is the rumination of thoughts that turns a secret into a burden and eventually hurts us.

5. Secrets can complicate your social life

Meeting or even living with those from whom you have hidden a secret implies being constantly on your guard, on the defensive. The content of the secret is constantly present in your thoughts, and people who are very close to you can often feel that something is wrong.

If someone finds out what secrets you were hiding from him, it could be the end of your relationship. Also, other people may stop trusting you as a result.

Additionally, many of us find that we have to compartmentalize our lives as a coping strategy to keep everything in check.

6. Keeping secrets may lead to social isolatation and increase the risk of depression

More recently, psychologists Tom Frijns and Catrin Finkenauer showed in 2012 that keeping secrets increases the risk of depression and relationship difficulties.

In this study, subjects first indicated whether they were currently keeping an important secret, and then completed a questionnaire on their health status.

Six months later, those who had told their secret felt less depressed than at the beginning of the study.

According to these psychologists, this permanent mental constraint can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The fear of disclosing sensitive information would also isolate the person carrying it from others.

7. Keeping secrets can affect longevity

In 1996, psychiatrist Steve Cole and his colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles found that HIV-positive gay men who did not talk about their infection had very low values of a certain type of white blood cell (ESBC) and died earlier than those who disclosed their disease.

Later, following 222 homosexuals, they noted that those who hid their sexual orientation from those around them (family, work, social) became sick more often, suffering from cancer, bronchitis or tuberculosis, regardless of the attention they paid to a healthy lifestyle.

What Are Secrets?

Surprisingly enough, although secrets are an important part of our lives, they have been the subject of relatively little scientific research. Thus, concepts such as concealment and secrecy have given rise to a limited number of specialized publications in social psychology over the past five decades.

This is partly because the details of a psychological process that takes place in the shadows are difficult to highlight.

Another reason is that credible experts on this issue have given a very narrow definition of secrecy: it’s defined as the intentional concealment of a fact or information from at least one person, the deliberate absence of honesty, or willful deception by the omission or withholding of information.

All these definitions are based on the view that at least one person interacts with another and conceals something from him/her.

But, is only the information we actively try to hide from others considered a secret?

For Michael Slepian, that is not true. In his opinion, secrecy also exists when we do not actively try to hide information from others. The mere fact that we are carrying something we do not want anyone to know is considered a secret.

In fact, researchers discovered that people thought about their secrets almost twice as often as they had to hide them in public actively. Moreover, the more people thought about their secrets – not the more they concealed them – the more these secrets would harm their well-being.

What is The Difference Between Secrecy And Privacy?

To distinguish the concept of secrecy from that of privacy, it is essential to keep in mind that secrets always have a social context. In other words, whereas privacy connotes being free from social intrusion, examination, and sanctions, secrecy does not.

secrecy is to try to hide information from society actively, information that society believes should not be hidden and should be known by others.

For example, the intimate details about a couple such us their sexual endeavors or financial problems are considered to be private in American society, because people agree that this information is not for public display.

However, keeping others from knowing that you have a highly contagious disease would be considered a secret, because society has a right or obligation to know in such cases.

What is The Difference Between Secrecy And Lying?

Secrecy is deception by omission, while lying is deception by commission. What that means is, for example, imagine a mother asking her daughter if she had homework to do, and let’s suppose that she hada Spanish homework to do that day.

If the daughter says: “I don’t have any homework to do” that would be lying, but instead if she says: “I don’t have any math homework to do” then she is now keeping a secret. The secret is omitted in her response with the intention of deceiving.

The Importance And Benefits Of Secrecy

Catrin Finkenauer is a professor of human relations and social psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. According to her, there are good reasons why the unspoken exist in the human species; withholding information does not only have downsides.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sociologist Georg Simmel wrote: “Secrecy is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.” It would even play the role of an important regulator of social relations.

Secrets are the currency of friendship

People carefully weigh the nature and importance of the information they entrust to others, and to whom they entrust it.

They also decide, through confessions, who to get closer to and who to keep farther away; it is the currency of friendship. “As soon as people share a secret, their relationship is closer,” said American psychologist James Pennebaker.

Secrets help to maintain your personal image

Humans also keep information to themselves in order to gain strategic advantages in relationships and improve their status.

However, the main reason for secrecy is often to protect oneself or others, as stated by Andreas Wismeijer of the University of Amsterdam.

Wismeijer is the author of a book on the most difficult aspects of our secrets to reveal. According to him, we often hide things that are regarded as socially unacceptable and can lead to social disapproval.

“The potentially useful sides of secrecy are most often brought under the carpet,” says Wismeijer, “both to the public and to science. In the end, only a nefarious reputation remains.”

What Types Of Secrets Are Safe For Children And Adolescents To Keep?

Many parents are distraught when one of their children’s rooms suddenly turns into a temple of silence. Or when their teenage children start to close their bedroom door.

However, it is partly through secrecy that adolescents develop their autonomy and capacity for self-determination. As Finkenauer points out: “They learn to decide who has the right or not to get to know them, and what they have the right to learn about them, in particular.”

This is an important process. The more information or areas of interest (within safe limits, of course) young people keep for themselves without necessarily talking to their parents, the more emotionally independent they become.

Unfortunately, in many cases, this is not justified. The permanent secrecy of adolescents often hinders their relationship with their parents, which was indeed observed by Finkenauer and his team in their studies.

The parent-child relationship suffers more as children regularly conceal themselves, more so with girls than with boys. Mutual trust is essential in this period of life.

Considering all this, parents should talk to their children about the need to open up and should reassure them that no matter what they are bothering them, they are on their side. When parents judge their children because they want something different, or because they are different from what they expect, it is clear that they will not want to share.

Also, we should allow children only to keep harmless secrets (e.g., surprises). To do so, parents must teach their children about unsafe secrets.

Adolescents, on the other hand, often confuse their desire for safety, understanding, and compassion with a tendency for confidentiality. And as a result, they keep secrets from their parents when what they really want is support and help.

At the same time, parents are required to be aware that adolescents need a good dose of harmless secrets, which plays an essential role in the development of their emotional autonomy.

Also, remember that what counts as a secret is sometimes disputed. A teenager who keeps information from a parent may consider it private, but the parent may accuse the teenager of keeping a secret.

In Summary

By studying the secrets of thousands of people, researchers have shown that they relate primarily to their families and love life.

Hiding certain facts about us can be used to get to our goals, build new relationships, and improve our status, but it does cost us a lot in terms of mental and even physical energy.


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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