A secret investigation

Secrets range from the trivial – not telling a friend you borrowed their shoes – to the serious – not telling your partner that you’re HIV positive, for example. John Caughlin at the University of Illinois and his colleagues investigated whether people’s reasons for withholding a secret predict how long the secret will last, and how good people are at predicting the consequences of revealing their secret.

Two hundred and eighteen students with a secret were recruited. They stated what their secret was, who they were keeping it from (most cited a friend or romantic partner), why they were keeping it secret, and what they thought would happen if they gave the secret away. Two months later they stated whether they’d revealed their secret (63 had) and what the consequences were. Secrets ranged from things like “When I was a child I was molested by a family member” to “I still have feelings for my first love”.

To some extent it was possible to predict which secrets would be revealed. Students who at the outset were less concerned about being negatively evaluated after revealing their secret, or who were less worried about the impact the revealed secret might have on their relationship (with their confidant), were more likely to have revealed the secret two months later.

The students also showed a modest ability to accurately predict the consequences of revealing their secret. In fact, how they said their friend/partner/relative reacted, tended to be more positive than they had predicted that person’s reaction would be two months earlier. So go on, sharing that secret might not be as awkward as you think…

Caughlin, J.P., Afifi, W.A., Carpenter-theune, K.E. & Miller, L.E. (2005). Reasons for, and consequences of, revealing personal secrets in close relationships: a longitudinal study. Personal relationships, 12, 43-59.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.