Secrets are bad for your health, both physical and mental, but not for the reasons you probably think. Michael Slepian, Professor at Columbia Business School, along with his team of researshers found that 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 (Read here more about how secrets can affect you). So what’s the point in keeping them?

The specific reasons for concealing information are numerous, and depend on the circumstances. However, here is the broad reasons why people keep secrets:

  • Shame
  • Protecting privacy
  • Protecting oneself or others from being hurt
  • Avoiding conflicts and the repercussions of disclosing certain information
  • Avoiding social stigma
  • Managing and controling social relations
  • Gainning advantage in a specific area of life

In addition, researchers such as Dale Larson and Robert Chastain showed that self-concealment (keeping secrets) results from people having concerns about receiving disaproval from others, as it is a threat to their fundamental human need to belong to a community or group.

So let’s find out how exactly do these factors push us towards the secretive side of the human behavior spectrum.

Reasons For Keeping Secrets

1. Shame

Shame is a key element in the process of hominization (growing up as a human being). Hominization draws the difference between what is private and what is to share with society. This is what gives us the ability to choose what we need to be transparent about; we do not say everything, and we do not show ourselves entirely to others.

Shame appears when our privacy is violated and publicly disclosed. However, shame is also what keep us from revealing some information; we feel embarassed even though no one knows about our secret.

Scientific studies showed that there is correlational link between secrecy and shame. For example, reserachers Catrin Finkenhauer and Bernard Rimé, found in 1998 that participants indicated higher ratings of guilt and shame over nonshared events as compared to shared events.

Additionally, an experiment was conducted by the two British psychologists James Macdonald and Ian Morley in 2001. As part of this experiment, participants were asked to write in a diary whether or not they had disclosed emotions they had experienced for a week.

The results indicated that 68% of the emotional incidents recorded in the diaries were not disclosed to anyone. When participants were interviewed afterwards, the researchers found that self-concealment was related to the anticipation of negative interpersonal reactions to disclosure, in addition to more self-critical factors such as shame.

1. Following social conventions

We often think that secrets are inherently shameful. The expression “keeping secrets” evokes something negative or evil, namely, the intention to hide information because it could cause harm.

However, some secrets are rather benign and are kept for totally harmless reasons. For example, a friend who is planning a surprise birthday party will hide it from you.

Other secrets are concealed simply following social norms. As an example, most people would find it inappropriate for colleagues to disclose details about their family’s finances.

2. Protecting privacy

As with harm, we also think that secrets are always deceptive. However, even if people lie to keep a secret, or simply not bringing up the topic, the level of deception is sometimes so low that others are aware if somebody is keeping information secret.

For example, many people who ask about someone’s honeymoon will be happy to hear about the travel without pressing for the omitted details.

Those are constituent elements of our private lives, and everyone has the right to control what is shared and what falls into their privacy, even if what would be considered private differs between cultures and individuals.(Learn here about the difference between secrecy and privacy)

3. Avoiding social stigma

According to sociologist Sarah Cowan of New York University, we decide to share a secret with a person based on our relationship with that person, but also on the general perception of the society of this secret.

If the secret is something that is often stigmatized (e.g., sexual abuse, HIV), secret keepers may worry about being judged negatively.

For example, a recent survey showed that when American women decide to have an abortion, they often keep it to themselves. However, when they talk about it they often do so with family, friends, or acquaintances who are unlikely to judge them.

Cowan and her colleagues analyzed data from a representative survey of 1,600 women who went through an abortion and had to tell their acquaintances or family members. It turned out that two-thirds of the women who had abortions told only one person. However, in the case of miscarriage, women opened up to an average of two to three people.

According to Cowan, the silence about abortions comes from a fear of stigmatization. Also, being little confronted with their relatives and friends that are having an abortion, Pro-Life advocates are not often led to question their opinions. This may explain why public opinion on this issue remains relatively stable in the United States.

4. Avoiding conflict

There are also relationship-oriented reasons to conceal information. For example, people would hide their sexual history because they fear that their current partner would not want to stay with them if they knew.

When divulging a secret may lead to conflict, people believe they must keep a secret to preserve their relationship.

In 1974, researcher Robert Norton and his colleagues showed that secrets related to sexuality, mental health, violence or abuse were perceived by a group of undergraduate students as the riskiest statements because these secrets could cost them valuable relationships.

It follows from their findings that people would go to great lengths to avoid revealing secrets that could exclude them from their social circle and support network.

5. Protecting oneself

According to Anita Kelly, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, it is often the desire to protect oneself from possible negative reactions that drives us towards secrecy.

In 2011, Joyce Maas and her colleagues at Radboud University in the Netherlands, observed this among a sample of 287 HIV-positive subjects, who were asked if they were openly discussing their illness. Most participants kept their illness secret from at least one person around them.

However, their well-being was not affected if they:

  1. Were able to continue communicating freely on most other subjects with family and friends
  2. Avoided constantly thinking about their illness.

So while we use secrets to protect ourselves, it is also crucial to prevent them from contaminating all our behaviours and thoughts.

6. Protecting others

We sometimes hold onto secrets to protect other people, to keep them happy, safe,
and far from the harm of its content. This includes, for example:

  • Parents hiding financial difficulties from their children.
  • A person who had a one-night stand and didn’t say anything to his/her partner so as not to hurt him/her.
  • A family member hiding the severity of his/her illness.

(For more, please read: Should you keep a secret to protect someone?)

7. Managing and controling social relations

The most interesting thing about secrecy, as shown in a recent book by Laurent Schmitt, a professor of psychiatry in Toulouse, is not so much the content of the secret (because ultimately, it’s more or less the same type of secrets) as its function and its use.

Secrecy attracts and repels at the same time:

  1. It attracts because we all appreciate being kept in confidence, knowing the hidden side of things or people, satisfying our curiosity and ego.
  2. It irritates us because, on the other hand, knowing that a secret exists but not having access to it gives us a feeling of exclusion and inferiority (compared to those who know), which is unpleasant for self-esteem.

On a daily basis, we often swear that we have no secrets to earn the trust of the people we interact with. “To be honest with you,” “to tell you the whole story” are common expressions to convince you, whether in politics or business.

Studies on this topic show that, in general, voluntarily revealing a personal secret relieves us; the social sharing of emotionally charged information reduces our sense of loneliness.

It seems to be less of a catharsis than a reorganization of a pattern of anxious thoughts that keeps ruminating around in our heads. Disclosing secrets to a few selected people helps to clarify and redistribute roles and responsibilities.

How Many Secrets Does The Average Person Keep?

Following a series of experiments conducted in 2017 by Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun and Malia Mason, three researchers from Columbia University, they discovered that on average each person would have 13 secrets, 5 of which were never revealed to anyone.

The paper, which looked at more than 13,000 secrets over 10 different studies, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The 600 participants that took part in this study were asked if they were keeping any of the 38 different common categories of secrets. Slepian and his collegues discovered that wanting someone other than your partner, unusual sexual behavior, theft and hidden personal life events were among the most secretive of all.


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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Related Articles


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.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

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