When you keep a secret at work, you’re entering a vow of silence that will take more willpower than just keeping your mouth shut. As new research on the experience of keeping a secret shows, secrecy takes a psychological toll on our minds, suggesting that the intention to conceal information, and not the concealment itself, is what makes secrecy so potentially harmful.
For a new paper published in Attitudes and Social Cognition, researchers from Columbia University broadly redefined what secrecy could be, saying that a secret becomes a secret the moment someone “decides to withhold information about an episode or act from another person.”
The researchers gave the example of a job candidate who wishes to conceal the fact that they have no other job interviews lined up. When the day of the big interview comes, the candidate never gets asked “Where else are you interviewing?,” but the researchers would still consider this a secret because of the decision-making thinking and intent that job candidate must’ve expended thinking about this information.
Thinking about your secret is worse than keeping it
To show the repercussions of being a secret keeper, the researchers recruited 200 different participants to take part in experiments where they would take surveys on if they had a personal secret, moments they had to conceal that secret in interactions, how often they thought about having to keep that secret, and whether that secret impacted their life satisfaction and “has made my life and well-being worse.”
What they found was that being in social settings that require you to keep a secret doesn’t matter as much as how much you dwell on having a secret. The more participants mind-wandered to their secret outside of social settings that necessitated keeping quiet, the more they felt the secret hurt their well-being.
The researchers suggest secrecy’s connection to wellbeing is because wellbeing is not just the state of feeling good, it’s also tied to living up to one’s values and being authentic. When you have a secret, you are entering a binding agreement where you cannot express yourself fully.
“The more participants report being preoccupied with their secrets, the more those secrets seem to burden them, influencing how challenging other tasks seem,” the study states. “What seems to be harmful about secrecy, is not having to conceal a secret, but having to live with it.”