Communities

Tell Everyone! Science Says There’s A Physical Cost To Keeping Secrets

by Rafi Schwartz

April 30, 2015
image via (cc) flickr user girius

There’s an old schoolyard rhyme: “Secrets, secrets, are no fun // Secrets, secrets, hurt someone.”

As it turns out, the “somone” being hurt is actually the secret-holder. That’s because, as a new study led by Columbia University professor Michael Slepian points out, the act of keeping a secret exerts a physical toll on the person holding it in. In “Exploring the secrecy burden: Secrets, preoccupation, and perceptual judgments,” Slepian, along with colleagues from Stanford and Wake Forest Universities, demonstrate how the act of keeping a secret can have an effect similar to that of carrying a weight when it comes to matters of perception and focus. 

image via (cc) flickr user stevendepolo

Slepian’s study, explains a Columbia University press release, used what is known as a “Hill Slant” test. Study participants were divided into two groups: One group was told to focus on “preoccupying secrets, the things–whether as significant as sexual identity, or as mundane as a persistent bad habit–which take up a considerable portion of the subject’s brain-power, as they obsess more and more over them. The other group focused on “non-preoccupying” secrets which were of little daily concern, regardless of the magnitude of the secret itself. Both groups were then shown a picture of a hill, and asked to judge the steepness of its slope. When the researchers reviewed the data: 

The results were consistent: those participants who were asked to recall a preoccupying secret judged the hill to be steeper, and therefore more forbidding, just as if they were lugging a heavy load.

In other words, the data indicates that the more a person is focused on keeping a secret, the more their physical perception mimics that of someone carrying additional weight. The key here is not the actual secret itself, but rather the degree to which the person keeping the secret spends time and energy thinking about their confidential knowledge. As Slepian puts it

The more you feel preoccupied by a secret and are thinking about it, the more you are using your personal resources — cognitive and motivational — the less energy you feel you have available to pursue other tasks. You see things around you as more challenging. It’s the same outcome as when you are carrying a heavy burden. 

Given that explanation, perhaps there’s a negative feedback loop at play here as well: The more a secret is obsessed over, the more one views the world as challenging, leading to an even more skewed perception of the initial secret… lather, rinse, repeat. 

image via (cc) flickr user microwavedboy

Medical Daily points out that a 2014 study, also by Slepian contains a(n obvious) solution for those for whom obsessing over a secret may be taking a physical toll. Simply put, Slepian and his colleagues suggest spilling the beans. They argue that the act of sharing a secret allows a person a respite from obsessing over it, which in turn reverses any negative perceptive effects focusing on that secret might cause. 

None of this is to say that everyone should immediately start airing all their dirty laundry immediately. Rather, it’s important to understand how, and why, keeping secrets might affect the way we experience the world. 

And now that you know what secrets can do to you, it’s probably smart not to keep this information to yourself. Spread the word - you’ll feel better.

[via Medical Daily]

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Tell Everyone! Science Says There’s A Physical Cost To Keeping Secrets