Secrets are risky business. Confiding can lead to serious consequences. And a main reason is that people are not very good at keeping secrets.
Let me tell you about a phenomenon I keep noticing. I see a friend confide a secret (let’s call him Ken Adams – Joey, from Friend’s “fake name”) to my other friend, (let’s call him Chandler Bing – or Chanandler Bong). This secret can either be fact or my opinion about a third party (let’s call her Ms. Regina Phalanges – Phoebe’s “fake name”), but not something Ken Adams want the general public to know and something Ken Adams really doesn’t want to get back to Ms. Phalanges! Chandler hears the secret and promises to be discreet. When we come back together after some time, Chandler remembers the content of the secret about Regina but has no recollection that a) Ken was the one who informed him or b) that it was a secret in the first place. This secret is now considered ‘truth’ in Chandler’s mind and he risks dissemination to other sources by him as facts about Regina. Why did Ken Adams need to confide in Chandler and why did Chandler forget it was a secret?
Well it turns out it might be a normal part of cognitive functioning that we are bad at keeping secrets.
First of all, secrets actually make you feel bad. Research has found that keeping secrets leads to increased psychological problems compared to confiding in close others. Keeping secrets is associated with depression and loneliness. Not just psychological problems but physical ones too, people who keep their own and other people’s secrets are more likely to experience head aches, aches and pains, and nausea. Keeping secrets is a psychological burden and can lead to unpleasant psychological or physical sensations. This tension motivates people to unload this tenuous information.
Trying to suppress a thought might make you think about it more, because of the ironic monitoring process. Because you are reminding yourself not to think of a particular secret, your mind actually searches for that information. Thanks a lot, brain! The ironic monitoring process brings these unwanted thoughts to the surface, making them more accessible and bubbling up to conscious awareness. The cognitive load of trying to suppress a thought might also decrease your self-control in other areas as you put in the mental work to ignore thinking about that specific secret. Given the increased presence in your mind about this information, the availability heuristic would suggest you are more likely to call on this particular piece of information when the related subject is brought up. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that conjures up more immediate examples when evaluating a particular topic, and because of the ease of recollection we are more likely to believe this information is highly representative of the topic in question. For example, if the secret is that Ms. Regina Phalanges’ homemade cookie recipe is stolen from someone else, when someone brings up Ms. Phalanges, your mind will more readily go to remembering this secret about her since it’s already on your mind, and potentially more likely to think it’s representative of her character.
A most problematic issue is memory bias. Memory bias can either enhance or impair the recall of a memory. There is a long list of memory bias, which should be a red flag about how we store and recollect secrets. For example, we can selectively recall parts of a secret as details fade over time (“levelling or sharpening”). We can misattribute the source of information, for example hearing that someone saw Regina take the recipe from another source we incorrectly remember that we witnessed that deception taking place. There are context effects, where a secret is more easily remembered when we are in the same context as the original occurrence or transmission of information. Positivity effect, where we tend to favour positive information in our memories. Consistency bias, where you incorrectly remember your own attitudes and behaviours at the time. Serial position effect – you remember first and last items of a list or occurrences more easily than what happened in the middle. There’s just a whole bunch of ways our brain can mess with how we remember a secret – or if we remember it’s a secret at all.
Who: Choose your confidant very carefully. Someone independent from the situation is less likely to have a motive or a prompt to share the information. Given that we are motivated to offload secrets, and it’s potentially important to our health (!), find confidants that you trust and that are impartial. They might give you better advice if that’s what’s needed!
When: Since our memories are subject to many different recollection biases, I would recommend emphasizing that the piece of information is a SECRET. Say at the very beginning and the very end that it’s confidential and that you expect them to keep it a secret. Have the individual agree that they will keep it a secret before you tell them. These tricks might help with making sure the individual remembers it’s a secret. If you believe that the individual might use the information maliciously; a) maybe don’t confide in that person or, b) …collateral. Often discussions involve the trading of information where you learn information from the other party as well (which is actually a part of social bonding and building trust… but that’s another issue) which can be spilled if your secret gets exposed. It creates an extra incentive not to tell.
How: Think carefully about the message you are sending. Why are you telling this secret? Remember the information that you choose to share is a reflection of you. Make sure to align your message with your intensions (i.e., Regina will get sued if she starts selling this cookie recipe publicly, what can we do to help her?).
Where: Context is important for recall of secrets. If you are having trouble getting a secret to leave your mind, remove yourself from that immediate environment to see if that helps.
What: There are certainly different kinds of secrets. For example, information that is self-generated tends to be remembered more clearly than information you’ve heard from others. I’m going to separate secrets into information about the self and information about others.
There are many motives for keeping a piece of self-information discrete. Cheating on a diet, failing at a course, really loving that cringe-worthy song that keeps playing on the radio. All of these examples conjure up emotions associated with shame and embarrassment. Sometimes we hide this information in attempts to craft our persona because of self-image motives to be seen as a good/skilled/smart/tasteful/etc person. We don’t want to risk social humiliation with our peers, as this is shown to have a negative impact on self-esteem. Even more, you might be denying or downplaying certain information to yourself in self-deception, not wanting to face negative emotions associated with negative self-attributions.
Information about other people is a different type of secret. First of all, it raises the question of if we have the right to share that information. If the source of the secret asks for discretion, we don’t have the right to share it. Next, there is a question about the accuracy of the information, since information transmission creates the risks that the content can be shifted or misinterpreted – not only in our memory but in the memory of the secret-receiver. Finally, what about intention? We can share other people’s secrets with the intention to help (ex. “I think Regina’s behaviour is self-destruction, what can we do to help?”) or to harm (ex. “Regina said something mean about you behind your back, Chandler, so you should take me to the concert instead”). Not to mention that if the source of the secret found out you blabbed, it could seriously damage your friendship. Both the person you are disclosing the secret to and the source of the secret might find you untrustworthy, which can be a serious social consequence.
I’ve been in social situations where secrets and the sharing of secrets have caused lots of problems and ended friendships. If we all think about secrets a bit more and how they impact not only others but ourselves, maybe we can be better friends.