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Zip It: Why Secrets Are So Hard to Keep

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From gossip mags to “Page Six,” from E True Hollywood Stories to the proverbial water-cooler chat, we’re all suckers for a good secret. I’m terrible about keeping mum when it comes to surprises. I want to give presents before birthdays or reveal surprises before I’m supposed to just to share my excitement with friends as soon as I can. 

Recently a friend of mine revealed a big secret about another friend that she’d been sworn to secrecy over, which got me wondering—why are some of us better at keeping things in the vault than others? What do we gain when we share secrets, especially knowing that by doing so, we’re risking friendships and trust? Is there something harmful about holding in a secret that makes us feel like we have to let it out? 

Until recently, there wasn’t much research on the psychology of secrets, but new studies have shed some light on why it’s so hard for so many of us to keep our lips zipped. 

It Starts When We’re Young
We start grappling with telling, keeping, and not telling secrets just as we master our basic motor skills. Joan Peskin, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, conducted a study on three-, four-, and five-year-olds to try to pinpoint when exactly we pick up on the skill of secret keeping. She showed kids two kinds of stickers: one covered in glitter that got many of them excited, and another bland one that didn’t arouse much interest. When Peskin told them she was going to take away the one that they liked best, most four- and five-year-olds lied, hoping she’d take away the one they really found boring. The three-year olds weren’t so sneaky—they nearly always blurted out their favorite, even when Peskin repeated the scenario multiple times. 

This means that by around age four, we’ve developed the ability to understand that there is an inner world (in our minds) and an outer one. So why are some of us better than others at keeping our inner knowledge locked up than others? 

Permission to Speak Freely
We’ve all heard about the pink elephant mind game. If someone tells me to think about anything but a pink elephant, it’s going to be pretty darn near impossible for me to get it out of my head. Similarly, if we learn some information and we cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to-die never to reveal it, the lure of spilling the beans grows in a big way. 

A team of psychologists confronted the pink elephant phenomenon to try to shed some light on the science of secrets. Their experiment, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, asked subjects to ring a bell every time the forbidden thought entered their mind. Guess what? Those who were trying to avoid thinking about it rang the bell once per minute—significantly more than those who were free to have the thought. Then they found what I think is the most interesting part of the study—what they called the rebound effect. When a subject was given permission to think the thought, it poured out even more frequently than if it hadn’t been suppressed at all. If we’re given the go-ahead to spill the beans—even if the person giving the go-ahead isn’t the source of the secret—it spills out very freely. 

Wegner, the study’s leader, also made another insight about people trying to suppress a thought. When we’re trying not to think of something (like how badly we want to tell everyone about our possible promotion), we look around for something to replace that forbidden thought, glancing at things like the ceiling, the TV, some food. But this behavior—called negative cueing—actually makes it worse, because soon our minds form a bond between the secret thought and all these surrounding items, so pretty soon everything reminds us of the one thing we’re trying not to think about. 

“People will tend to misread the return of unwanted thoughts,” Wegner said in a more recent article in Psychological Science. “We don’t realize that in keeping it secret, we’ve created an obsession in a jar.” 

Can We Overcome the Obsession?
That said, there are some secrets that should be kept. Is there any way out of the angst—short of breaking someone’s trust? 

“I made a mistake and kissed another guy,” says Shauna Dekelver. “It was eating me up inside, so I told my boyfriend. He’s still not past it, even though it really didn’t mean anything. If I could go back, I’d choose the anxiety of keeping the secret over the consequences of telling it.” 

One way to divert attention away from that secret that’s begging to be told is to focus on one single distraction. Wegner’s study had people focus on the image of a red car, which proved to be successful in later experiments. The only problem with this is that studies have linked this replacement thought to strange obsessions. Enter one telling study involving a secret game of footsie. 

Four people were placed around a table, split into two male-female teams. They were told to play a card game, and one team was secretly instructed to play footsie without alerting the other team. The couple with the secret flirtation got so excited by the illicit game, that researchers forced them to leave through different doors for ethical reasons. This is why secret affairs or forbidden kisses are so much more exciting. When we have to keep something quiet, it just grows. 

Spilling Isn’t So Bad
In fact, it’s probably good for us. (Though it may not be ideal for the person whose secret you’re supposedly keeping.) Clearly, struggling to hold in a secret can wreak some serious havoc on our psyches. Does this mean there’s a healthy result from dishing out some juicy gossip during my coffee break? Possibly. But what if revealing that info that’s burning us up inside means hurting a friend? 

Writing it in a journal is one solution to releasing the tension. Another researcher, James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas, studied the healing aspect of secret spilling. He led research that showed people who had a traumatic sexual experience before age seventeen were likely to have health problems later in life. But just spending time writing about them for fifteen or twenty minutes four days in a row gave patients a significant and intense feeling of tension release. Any means of divulging, whether it’s actually telling someone or just writing it on a piece of paper and flushing it down the toilet, is correlated with a tangible health improvement—physically and mentally. Cleary, putting experiences into words has a powerful effect. 

What About the Good Secret-Keepers?
“I’m like a sealed vault for all my friends,” says Sara Broderson. “Containing them makes me feel good, even the juicy ones, because I know I’m being supportive.” 

Though there are definitely benefits to releasing that pent-up anxiety surrounding a secret or juicy bit of gossip, concealing them doesn’t guarantee physical problems. One study by Anita E. Kelly, author of The Psychology of Secrets, found that 40 percent of the patients she asked kept secrets from their therapist, but didn’t feel any stress as a result. Secrets can be kept and, in certain situations, can save us from a lot more trouble than revealing it would solve. Kelly calls these stigmatizing secrets. 

For some of us, this stigma is clear and its costs outweigh the benefits divulging it would give us. For others, for whatever reason—attention, forming bonds with other friends, or a genuine desire to inform someone—the benefits of divulging a secret lure us toward that water cooler. 

We just have to decide which set of benefits we want to bask in. Me? I’ll be trying to make sure all my confidants know that their trust is the most important benefit to me.


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