People Keep Secrets Because They Overestimate Harsh Judgments

People Keep Secrets Because They Overestimate Harsh Judgments

Research suggests that people tend to exaggerate how critically they will be viewed if they reveal negative information about themselves to others

Keeping certain secrets can weigh on people and have an adverse effect on one’s well-being. People are nonetheless often reluctant to reveal negative information about themselves. Sometimes people keep details such as a past misstep or an embarrassing desire from even their closest loved ones.

This form of secrecy partly reflects worries about consequences for one’s reputation or relationships. But our data suggest that these fears are systematically miscalibrated: people likely expect harsher judgment than they will in fact receive, should they open up.

In research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my colleagues (behavioral scientists Mike Kardas of Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business and Nick Epley of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business) and I document people’s mistaken beliefs about such interactions. We also investigate what people misunderstand about what these disclosures really reveal. In a series of studies involving more than 2,500 participants, potential secret-revealers anticipated that they would be judged more negatively by recipients of their secret than they were judged in actuality.


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In one experiment, for example, we asked people to get to know one another through a conversation. Pairs of participants answered and discussed relatively intimate questions with each other, such as their favorite memories, what they dream about doing in the future, and so on. We instructed one participant in each pair to lie about a question, specifically one regarding a time they had cried, and to keep their dishonesty secret from the other person. The partner who had lied subsequently indicated their expectations of the other person’s impression of them if they were to reveal this secret. Then we told them to actually reveal their lie. Finally, recipients of this revelation indicated their evaluations of their conversation partner. We observed that recipients’ evaluations were consistently less negative than revealers’ expectations.

These findings are not limited to artificially created secrets in laboratory contexts or to revelations among strangers. In fact, we find that participants also have miscalibrated expectations when they consider sharing real secrets in close relationships. In another experiment as part of the same investigation, we asked people to write down a genuine negative secret that they hadn’t revealed to others. We asked them to indicate how they thought they would be judged after sharing it and then to tell their truth. The negative information included relatively minor issues, such as eating chocolate at night after one’s partner had gone to bed, as well as more serious ones involving health decisions or infidelity. Some participants subsequently revealed their negative secret to a friend or family member. Our data suggested that prospective revealers overestimated how negatively they would be judged in both close and distant relationships. In yet another experiment, we saw this same pattern play out between romantic partners. Revealers tend to underestimate their partner’s consideration and overestimate their disapproval.

Why do people have such pessimistic expectations? Part of the reason is that potential revealers are prone to focus on the negative aspects of what they are conveying and don’t fully realize that such revelations come with positive attributes, too. For example, the recipients of this information recognize that the person sharing their secret is being open and honest, which they value. Of course, revealing negative information does communicate negative content—but it also communicates positive qualities, such as trust and vulnerability. When we asked revealers and recipients in another experiment to select the thoughts that would be most likely to come to mind when negative information being concealed was shared, the revealers tended to pick negative thoughts, whereas recipients primarily chose positive ones. Understanding the perspective of those on the other end of these interactions involves understanding that they are likely to focus more broadly on both the content being revealed and the decision to reveal it. Broadening one’s attention to consider both negative and positive outcomes of being transparent, then, can lead to more calibrated judgments of others’ impressions.

We also found that people are more likely to keep information secret if they expect to be judged harshly. Misguided assumptions about others’ reactions matter because they can guide decisions about whether to open up. In a final experiment, better calibrating people’s beliefs about how they would be judged increased their willingness to reveal negative information rather than conceal it as a secret. When participants were informed that they would likely not be judged very severely, they were more likely to reveal than conceal.

When people in our experiments shared their secret, they reported feeling significantly better afterward. They were less burdened by their omissions or deceptions. Indeed, our results suggest that people’s mistaken beliefs may therefore create a somewhat misplaced barrier to greater transparency in relationships. The miscalibrated expectations people hold can make the burden of secrecy unnecessarily heavy—whereas opening up can benefit one’s well-being.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at dyuhas@sciam.com.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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