Keeping secrets is bad. Not only does it represent an added mental and emotional weight, but it even becomes a burden on the physical level since it has been shown that secrets exhaust us physically. However, he who has never kept a secret should cast the first stone. Sometimes we may even feel that we are “forced” to keep quiet about certain things.
At work, for example, it is not uncommon for us to jealously “hide” certain personal information, especially when we are worried about being judged harshly or that others will develop a negative image of us. And these fears extend to practically all the environments in which we operate, from family and relationships to friends. However, everything seems to indicate that this fear is exaggerated.
Research conducted at the McCombs School of Business asked a group of people to imagine a negative secret and predict how someone would judge them if they told it. Then, each participant had to reveal that secret to another person and tell how it went. Interestingly, they acknowledged that they expected to be judged worse. In other words: people were more benevolent than expected.
Obviously, when we believe that others will think we are less trustworthy, we may be tempted to hide certain things. However, in the experiments this revelation had the opposite effect. People gave those who came clean higher honesty and trustworthiness scores than they expected.
And those results were replicated in different environments. Participants told secrets to strangers, acquaintances, close friends, family members, and romantic partners, achieving the same effect: appearing more trustworthy and honest than they assumed.
It should be noted that our expectations are usually more precise when it comes to how people close to us will respond to the revelation of a secret, but despite this, they did not completely correspond to reality.
Does it happen with all secrets?
Of course, not all secrets are equal. But study participants revealed a wide range of negative information, from admitting that they had never learned to ride a bike to confessing an infidelity.
Once again, they had to predict the extent of the revelations of the most serious secrets about others. However, even in those cases, they overestimated its impact.
There is no doubt that the magnitude of what we reveal can affect the judgment and image that others have of us, but in general, honesty is usually well received – with few exceptions.
In fact, finding that revealing secrets did not have as negative an impact as they expected encouraged people to be more honest in their daily lives. Only 56% of people would be willing to admit that they had just lied, but if they knew that they would not be judged for it, 92% would choose to reveal their lies.
What can we learn?
This research shows us that in most cases we could be carrying secrets for the wrong reason; That is, to prevent others from judging us too harshly or forming a negative image.
The truth is that we tend to overestimate the negative impact of our revelations. That drama that we create in our minds drives us to keep secrets and carry the psychological burden that they usually entail.
The thing is, when we think about conveying negative information about ourselves, we often focus on the content of the message. This can lead us to imagine that the person will react in a terrible way.
Instead, those who listen to us often think of the positive characteristics that were necessary to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and the courage to show our vulnerability.
This discrepancy between our expectations and reality is also related to the Pratfall Effect, according to which making small mistakes makes us more likeable in the eyes of others because people can feel more identified with us.
On the other hand, we must also take note that the warmth, understanding and empathy that we show towards others when they reveal a secret to us is essential to building a relationship of trust and sincerity. Our response is conditioning their expectations and whether they trust us again in the future or not will depend on it.
Kardas, M. et. Al. (2023) Let it go: How exaggerating the reputational costs of revealing negative information encourages secrecy in relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 10.1037.