Can You Keep a Secret?

Mar 18, 2022

Most of us suffer under the convenient delusion that we’re good at keeping secrets. The shared confidences of our friends are sacrosanct, we like to think. Drill deeper into that idea and, let’s face it, the self-deception often falls apart. But why, in truth, are so many of us so bad at keeping private disclosures, shared in confidence, to ourselves?

How many of you remember the old expression we used to chant before a friend would agree to tell us a secret to reassure them we’d never reveal it? “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Most of us would be dead by now!

What’s the Secret to Secret-Keeping?

That is the subject of a fascinating story published recently in The Wall Street Journal entitled There’s a secret to keeping secrets. Not surprisingly, we read it with enthusiasm. The piece opens with disarming clarity:

“In a perfect world, our secrets would always be kept. But our world is imperfect. New research concludes that confidences about shame-inducing missteps, infidelities and imbroglios get exposed about a third of the time, which raises the question: What kinds of secrets are most likely to be revealed?”

Secrecy & Morality

The article quotes the recent research of Jessica Salerno, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, and Michael Slepian, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these enterprising academics investigate the connection between secrecy and morality.

Their research was exhaustive and involved nine different groups of 150 diverse participants and covered a wide range of scenarios – some hypothetical, others based on current news stories, others still taken from the participants’ own experience.

The Findings

Interesting though the research methodology was, it’s the findings that are most electrifying. The story reported that the more morally outraged a person felt, the more likely they were to spill the beans. Essentially, secrets about unethical behaviour were less likely to remain secret.

Secrets most likely to be revealed were as follows:

  • Specific lies (46%)
  • Harming another person or yourself (40%)
  • Illegal behaviour (35%)
  • Drug use (34%)

Reported the story: “If the secret was about someone who had already faced consequences for their behaviour, a confidante would be less likely to reveal their secret because they’d already been punished. If the hidden behaviour was unintentional, the secret was also likelier to be kept under wraps.”

So, Who Do You Tell?

The big question that the research throws up is: So how do you find a true confidante?

Dr. Slepian provides the answer: “Avoid the polite, rule-following, easy-to-offend person, especially if outgoing and loquacious; that’s the profile of someone most likely to spill the beans.”

And Dr. Salerno follows up with: “What you really want is someone compassionate and assertive – especially if you’re looking for help – and someone who has the same sense of morality as you.”

Our takeaway is this: If you think that the secret information you’re about to share is likely to induce indignation or disapproval in your confidante – keep your lips sealed!

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