I can share my secrets with you

Psychology: why we have secrets

Michael Slepian knows a lot about secrets - because of his job. The psychologist from Columbia University in New York has already analyzed perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 of them in his career. For years he has been researching what people prefer to keep to themselves and to what extent that burdens them.

Sometimes people suffer so much from secrecy that they almost punish themselves, Slepian and his colleague Bastian Brock from the University of Melbourne discovered in 2017. They won over the participants of their study via an online platform on which professional services are offered. This has two advantages: On the one hand, people from all kinds of population groups can be found through such a forum. For laboratory tests, on the other hand, usually only students who want to earn a little extra money sign up; that is not representative. On the other hand, the test subjects should reveal whether they had cheated on their current partner before and, if so, whether they had confessed or not. The anonymity of the Internet is far better suited for such confessions. In addition, the respondents stated how they felt in various situations with and without their partner, for example when they received an expensive gift or went out to dinner with friends.

  1. The secret is one of the greatest achievements of mankind, believed the sociologist Georg Simmel at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, secrecy has a positive side: it is important for the autonomy of young people not to tell their parents everything.

  2. Yet many people find it a burden if they are not honest. They show cognitive as well as physical losses and sometimes punish themselves. Brooding in particular leads to self-punishment; Feelings of guilt or the fear of betraying yourself to others are less likely.

  3. Initiating a person promotes wellbeing. Because that changes the way people think about their secret and reduces brooding. Who you confide in is not so important.

This article is included in Spectrum Compact, A Question of Trust

Of the 1500 respondents, 105 admitted to having cheated on their current partner before. More than half of the unfaithful subjects had concealed their offense. It was precisely these people who could no longer really enjoy the everyday pleasures in life, according to Slepian. "You punish yourself in a certain way and want to feel pain," explains the psychologist. In doing so, however, they felt no more guilty than those who had confessed to the affair.

Then why did they punish themselves anyway? To find out, the researchers manipulated participants' memories in further studies. Some subjects were asked to write down things they were hiding. This is similar to the natural state of pondering the mystery when one is alone. The result: those who had to write down their secrets were more inclined to self-punishments than those who were not supposed to write down anything or who had already revealed it. "But only after serious secrets that preoccupy you a lot is the desire for self-punishment", Slepian sums up. It is not because of guilt, but because of brooding over the secrecy.

Secret hobbies, debts, infidelity

We all have one secret or another within us. Be it harmless, like the recipe for the best tiramisu, or dramatic, for example high debt, involvement in a crime or a double life. Slepian found an average of 13 secrets that everyone carries around with them; and he has never revealed five of them to anyone. The American psychologist collected around 13,000 secrets from his subjects in various studies and divided them into 38 categories: lies, sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity (i.e. flirting), sexual orientation, drug use, secret hobbies, theft, trauma, dissatisfaction with the own body, belief in an ideology, unusual behavior, poor job performance, pregnancy, a family incident, finances, breach of trust and so on. This is the most detailed classification of the mystery world so far.

Because although secrets are so ubiquitous, they are a neglected object of research. Terms such as secret, secrecy or secrecy appear in only a few social psychological specialist publications over the past five decades. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the details of a process, the core of which is hidden, cannot easily be illuminated. On the other hand, relevant experts have defined the phenomenon very narrowly: as deliberately concealing information from at least one person, as active suppression of openness or as willful deception by leaving out information.