To better understand the harms of secrecy, my colleagues and I first set out to understand what secrets people keep, and how often they keep them. We found that 97 percent of people have at least one secret at any given moment, and people have, on average, 13 secrets. A survey of more than 5,000 people found that common secrets include preferences, desires, issues surrounding relationships and sex, cheating, infidelity and violations of others' trust.
Across several studies, we asked participants to estimate how frequently they concealed their secret during conversations with others, and also how frequently they thought about the secret outside of social interactions. We found that the more frequently people simply thought about their secrets, the lower their well-being. The frequency of active concealment when interacting with others, however, had no relationship to well-being.
Following up this research, a 2019 paper reveals why thinking about secrets is so harmful. Turning the question around, we examined the consequences of confiding secrets. We found that when a person confides a secret to a third party, it does not reduce how often they have to conceal the secret from others who are still kept in the dark. Rather, it reduces how often their mind wanders toward the secret in irrelevant moments.
The act of confiding a secret can feel cathartic and relieving. But mere catharsis is not enough. When confiding a secret, what is actually helpful is the conversation that follows. People report that when sharing a secret with another person, they often receive emotional support, useful guidance, and helpful advice. These forms of support make people feel more confident and capable in coping with the secret. When people find a healthier way of thinking about their secret, they ruminate less on it, and have improved well-being. Our studies suggest that what is important is talking to another person about a secret. A single conversation can lead to a healthier outlook and mind.
This new science of secrecy brings both good and bad news. The bad news is that even when we are not hiding our secrets, they are still very much with us, and can still hurt us. The good news is that even when we choose to still keep something secret, talking to another person can make the world of difference. Secrets don't have to hurt as much as they do.