"It's a burden trying to keep a secret. It's hard. It probably takes more out of you trying to hold it and keep it than it does for you to really let it out." (Magic Johnson)

As Magic Johnson's quote about keeping his HIV diagnosis secret suggests, secrecy is a heavy burden. Research has documented the cost of having secrets for well-being, including lower life expectancy, decreased relationship satisfaction, and elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression. Research has found that people hold an average of 13 secrets at any one time. Thus, almost everyone experiences the costs of keeping secrets.

My colleagues and I wanted to know whether people with certain traits are more affected by their secrets. We also wondered how certain situations are linked to the burden of secrecy. By understanding who keeps secrets and when, we hope to improve the well-being of secret-keepers, which is of all of us.

There Is More to the Burden of Secrecy Than Concealing Information

Secrecy research initially focused on the burden of actively concealing information. However, more recent studies suggest that spending time with thoughts about one's secrets is even more frequent and harmful than concealing secrets. When people let their mind wander to to their secrets, they feel bad about themselves, inauthentic, and socially disconnected.

People Think About Their Secrets Often as They Go About Their Day

Most people report having at least one secret. However, secrets may sit at the back of people's minds most of the time, and only be salient for certain types of people, or only in certain situations—for instance, when secret keepers must actively conceal information. We were interested in finding out not only how often people actively keep secret information from others, but also how often they find themselves mulling over their secrets.

Studying Secrets in Daily Life

Researchers have generally studied secrets by asking people to remember their previous experiences. Instead, we investigated the psychology of secrets as people went about their everyday lives, and explored how secrets unfold during day-to-day activities.

Using research methods that follow people as they go about life (while they are at home, working, and enjoying social interactions, for example), we tracked people across multiple situations. This allowed us to examine both the types of people and the types of situations that are associated with a greater burden of secrecy.  We conducted two studies involving a total of 307 adults, some recruited through an online platform in the United Kingdom, and some through community advertising in Victoria, Australia. We followed people's everyday experiences with secrets by surveying them daily (Study 1) and multiple times a day (Study 2) for a week.

We found that people think about their secrets frequently during the day, and not just when they are in situations requiring them to conceal the secret. Furthermore, secrets are surprisingly pervasive: People think of secrets roughly 18 to 31 times in a week (1 or 2 times every two hours), and conceal secrets roughly 6 to 17 times in a week.

Personality Was Not Linked to Thinking About or Concealing Secrets More

To understand whether different types of people experienced secrecy differently, we asked people to complete a personality questionnaire and gathered information on how many and what types of secrets they kept. Then we asked people to report on their secrets daily in one study, and many times a day in a second study.

We found no link between any of the personality traits we surveyed and how much people kept secrets. For instance, being agreeable or neurotic made no difference to how much people thought about their secrets or concealed them.

There was one exception: in one of the two studies, extroverts were more likely to conceal their secrets. Perhaps more social people come into contact with others more frequently and have more opportunities to conceal their secrets.

Secrecy Changes With the Situation

People were more likely to conceal their secrets when they spent more time than usual with those they kept their secrets from. In addition, when people felt more negatively than usual about their secrets, they were more likely to think about their secrets.

When Secrets Are in the Heart, They Are Also on the Mind

We have good news for anyone with a secret: by better understanding which situations prompt secret-keeping, people can better cope with their secrets in everyday life.

For Further Reading

Bianchi, V., Greenaway, K. H., Moeck, E. K., Slepian, M. L., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2024). Secrecy in Everyday Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672241226560

Bianchi, V., Greenaway, K. H., Slepian, M. L., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2024). Regulating emotions about secrets. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001357

Slepian, M. L. & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2024). Unlocking the secrets of secrets: How can we learn about experiences that cannot be recreated in the laboratory? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 18 (2), https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12922

Valentina Bianchi (she/her) is a Senior Clinical Psychologist and current PhD Candidate in social psychology at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on information regulation, emotion, and emotion regulation, in everyday life.