The Secret Life of Secrets

It’s human nature to hide parts of ourselves that produce shame or anxiety. We tend to skip over details that could change how others perceive us. But no matter how big or small our secret, it will often weigh on our minds, and not for the reasons you might expect. This week on Hidden Brain, we talk with psychologist Michael Slepian about the costs of secret keeping.

Additional Resources:

Slepian, M.L., Kirby, J.N., & Kalokerinos, E.K. Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mindEmotion, Vol. 20, No. 2, 323-328, 2020.

Slepian, M.L., Greenaway, K.H., & Masicampo, E.J. Thinking through secrets: Rethinking the role of thought suppression in secrecy.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 46 (10), 1411–1427, 2020.

McDonald, R.I., Salerno, J.M., Greenaway, K.H., & Slepian, M.L. Motivated secrecy: Politics, relationships, and regrets.Motivation Science, Vol. 6, No. 1, 61-78, 2020.

The Secret Telephone by Matthew Chavez, Michael Slepian, Dean Haddock, and Thomas Reintjes, 2019. 

Slepian, M.L., Halevy, N., & Galinsky, A.D. (2019). The solitude of secrecy: Thinking about secrets evokes motivational conflict and feelings of fatiguePersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 45 (7), 1129-1151, 2019.

Slepian, M.L. & Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2019). Confiding secrets and well-being.Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 10 (4), 472-484.

Slepian, M.L. & Greenaway, K.H. The benefits and burdens of keeping others’ secrets.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 78, 220-232, 2018. 

Slepian, M.L. & Kirby, J.N. To whom do we confide our secrets?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 44 (7), 1008-1023, 2018. 

Slepian, M.L., Chun, J.S., & Mason, M.F. The experience of secrecy.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 113 (1), 1-33, 2017. 

Slepian, M.L, Masicampo, E.J., & Galinsky, A.D. The hidden effects of recalling secrets: Assimilation, contrast, and the burdens of secrecy.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 145 (8), 27-48, 2016. 

Slepian, M.L., Camp, N.P., & Masicampo, E.J. Exploring the secrecy burden: Secrets, preoccupation, and perceptual judgments.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General144, e31-e42, 2015. 

Slepian, M.L., Masicampo, E.J., & Ambady, N. Relieving the burdens of secrecy: Revealing secrets influences judgments of hill slant and distance.Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 5 (3), 293-300, 2014.

Slepian, M.L., Masicampo, E.J., Toosi, N.R., & Ambady, N. The physical burdens of secrecy.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 141 (4), 619-624, 2012. 

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you're the parent of a small child, it's not uncommon to have an experience like this. Your kid comes home from preschool and says, "The butterfly flew away." You go, "What butterfly?" And your child looks at you, puzzled. She doesn't realize that the butterfly she saw at preschool when you are not around is not a butterfly you know anything about. In the minds of very small children, there is no sharp line between what they know and what others know. But at some point early childhood, all of us made a magical discovery. Our thoughts belong only to us. Parents, siblings, teachers, no one can enter our minds and see what we are thinking. A second discovery follows shortly afterward. If no one can see what is happening inside our minds, we can hide things from other people. We can keep secrets.

Speaker 2: So the pain of keeping this secret has been one of the biggest challenges I've had to deal with in my adult life.

Speaker 3: I do think constantly about it.

Speaker 2: And I can't tell anybody about it now.

Speaker 4: Because I'm afraid of what might happen. And it's affected my overall wellbeing.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain. How secrets tether us to our past, and sometimes keep us from stepping into the future. So often, the secrets that we keep start out as something small. We make tiny edits to our personal narratives. We skip over little details about where we come from, what we've done and who we know. We hide pieces of ourselves that produce shame or anxiety. But over time, the weight of even small secrets can become burdensome. Lauren LeDuc knows exactly how this works. She's in her early twenties and works in a pharmacy.

Lauren: But I'm also a fiancee, a daughter, a sibling, an older sibling to seven, I'm also a student, I'm in my masters trying to get into medical school at the moment.

Shankar Vedantam: Lauren's secret has to do with religion. She was raised Catholic. When she was a teenager, she turned away from Catholicism, but she didn't want to give up on religion altogether.

Lauren: I just didn't know what to believe in, but I knew I was still believing in God.

Shankar Vedantam: She started to explore other faiths: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism. She sought out people from different religious traditions and peppered them with questions.

Lauren: For example, I would try and find someone in high school or on my campus that was a practicing Buddhist, and just ask questions about that religion.

Shankar Vedantam: One of her religious consultants was a boy named Hamza.

Lauren: I was on student council. He was on like the media production team and we were actually playing a kickball game, and he scored a home run. And sophomore me was like, "Oh, that's the coolest guy ever."

Shankar Vedantam: Hamza, in addition to being the coolest guy ever, was Muslim.

Lauren: It was nice to have someone who was actually faithfully a part of their religion, whose family practiced it, who he seemed, to really enjoy it.

Shankar Vedantam: Hamza and Lauren began dating some months later. Eventually as she spoke with him and other practicing Muslims about what it meant to be a person of faith, Lauren decided that Islam was the right fit for her. In her senior year of high school, she converted. This was when her dilemma began. She didn't want people to assume that Hamza was the reason she had embraced Islam.

Lauren: Where they think I did it for a boy.

Shankar Vedantam: So she decided to fudge one tiny detail.

Lauren: Whenever I meet people and they ask about this, I ultimately end up emphasizing the point, yes, I converted before I met him.

Shankar Vedantam: But that's not how it happened. It was the other way around.

Lauren: I met my boyfriend and then I converted.

Shankar Vedantam: I see. The conversion is not the secret, but the timing of the conversion. You're actually in some ways predating when you actually converted because of your concerns about how people will perceive you.

Lauren: Yes, exactly.

Shankar Vedantam: If people thought Lauren had converted to please her boyfriend, she worried they might make other assumptions about her.

Lauren: She just does whatever she's told, she's gullible. She doesn't have her own set of values or her own thinking. And she just did this for a boy, she's a hopeless romantic. So for anyone to identify me with those traits, it would just be so hurtful to my self-esteem, to my confidence.

Shankar Vedantam: Lauren saw herself as motivated, strong, decisive. And when it came to religion, she knew her choices were entirely her own.

Lauren: How I view religion, it's just me and God. It shouldn't involve anyone else. It should just be a one-on-one relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: At first, the little lie made everything easier. She didn't have to explain to people that she would have made the same choice, whether or not she was with Hamza.

Lauren: Just don't tell them. Tell them a short synopsis, make it easy and to the point.

Shankar Vedantam: Easy and to the point, that was the hope, but like many secrets, this one slowly took on a life of its own. After high school, Lauren got a job as a pharmacy technician. When I talked to her, she had been working at the pharmacy for more than four years. The altered timeline for her religious conversion was the story she shared with colleagues. But as time passed, the little lie became harder to manage.

Lauren: Somebody was talking about me and Hamza and the timeline of like how we met. And I was like, "Oh crap, what did I tell them? I need to make sure that my story is correct." Because I told them maybe a year ago one story. I know. So I'm like having to keep track of like what I'm saying. And that's something that I do fear that I told somebody something maybe a year ago about our relationship and then they catch me on it.

Shankar Vedantam: Soon. There was another complication, Hamza.

Lauren: He just flat out tells people that this is whenever we started dating. And then I converted and then we got engaged. So he doesn't mind. He's not afraid of people so he just tells them the exact story, which is also kind of scary for me because I'm like, "Oh my gosh, what if one of your people comes to me?" I'm like, "Hamza stop. We have to go with my story." And he's like, "People probably already know." And I'm like, "They don't know because I'm telling them this. And you're telling them that."

Shankar Vedantam: Lauren's worries started to spill into her life. There were nights she couldn't sleep as she tried to remember all the angles. What she'd said to whom, what Hamza may have said, how people might cross-reference the stories and discover the truth. And then her worst fears were realized.

Lauren: We know this one couple, a husband and wife. And I guess he told the husband and the husband told the wife, and then the wife was asking me one day, "Oh yeah. How did y'all get together? And tell me your story." And she's one of the less conservative people that I know, and she's also Muslim. But I was telling her the shortened version and she's like, "My husband told me something different."

Shankar Vedantam: The other woman was understanding. She assumed Lauren had made up the story in order not to offend conservative relatives who didn't know when Lauren and Hamza started dating. But increasingly Lauren found the mental gymnastics of keeping her secret exhausting. She also started to feel bad about misleading people. She felt really bad about deceiving one particular coworker who had become a friend.

Lauren: She's amazing. Every time I come to the pharmacy now she's like, "Hey, bestie." And we really bonded because we both have dogs and our love for dogs, which is really awesome.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm. Hmm. But it's interesting, I'm wondering how this person in the pharmacy would feel if she knew that you had lied to her about something trivial. How do you think that she would take that?

Lauren: So part of my anxiety right now that I'm actively having is, what will people think whenever they hear this? Will they think that I've been lying to them? Or I haven't been a faithful friend or coworker, how will they react?

Shankar Vedantam: Right. I mean, in your case, I think the lie is sort of a relatively trivial thing, but I can see how in life there are people who put on roles and put on acts and basically live those roles and acts not for months and weeks, but for years, for decades. And then, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years on, they've essentially feel like they've lived an inauthentic life.

Lauren: Yes, yes. So that is something that I want to avoid. One of those keywords there: an authentic life. So I'm still young. Well I consider myself young I'm 22, so I definitely want to just get this behind me and be okay and open with accepting who I actually am and my actual timeline in life, and stop fabricating this timeline because that's one step closer to just becoming me, Lauren. And not keeping this lie and being afraid of the timeline that I've had in life. I think it'll even bring me even closer to my religion if I'm just super accepting of why I converted, when I converted, and how I did it.

Shankar Vedantam: Lauren's secret started out small, but it gradually took up more and more mental space. It left her feeling isolated from people who matter to her. And that it turns out is the rub when it comes to secrets. When we come back, we speak with a researcher who studies secrets, and ask him to analyze Lauren's story. He also explains what psychological studies reveal about the consequences of secret keeping.

Michael Slepian: It's not having to hide a secret. It's having to live with it alone.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Stay with us.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Michael Slepian is a psychologist at Columbia business school. He studies secrets. Across a number of research studies, he finds that holding onto secrets has profound effects on our wellbeing, but not for the reason most of us think. Michael Slepian, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Michael Slepian: It's good to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: When most of us think of keeping secrets, Michael, or the challenge of keeping secrets, what do we think about?

Michael Slepian: When you think about a secret sort of what people tend to imagine is one person sitting in a room with another person, and you're talking about something related to the secret and the person with the secret has to carefully dodge questions and make sure to not reveal the wrong information. And that certainly happens sometimes, but it turns out we don't actually have to hide our secrets very frequently. And it also turns out to be not the reason why they heard us.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm. I'm thinking actually of the scene from the TV show "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which I think encapsulates the conventional way most of us think of secrets. One of the characters, whose name is Rose, is trying to find out information about her son, Noah. He has a top secret job at a top secret agency and Rose is trying to get her daughter-in-law Astrid to spill the beans.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: So you call his university "the company?"

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman: Sorry.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: Or the other place, he works is the company?

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman: Did I say there was another place?

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: You implied it.

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman: I didn't mean to.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: Well does he keep in touch when he's away?

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman: He usually can't.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: I do. If he's away and I need to reach him are you able to?

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman: Not really.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: What would you do in an emergency?

Justine Lupe, as Astrid Weissman:

Well, I don't know. I can't just dial the operator and say, "Give me the CIA." It doesn't work that way.

Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman: Of course not.

Shankar Vedantam: And Michael, of course, this is what we think when we think about keeping secrets, the moment of trying to hide something from someone and feeling flustered as they fish it out of us.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. And so if that was all that was harmful about secrecy, that would actually be quite good because we're not often in these conversations. But unfortunately, even when we're not talking to someone about something related to the secret, we have all the time in the world to simply think about that secret and for our mind to return to that secret, again and again. And this is where the real harm of secrecy seems to seep in. Not moments when you have to hide the secret, but moments when you find yourself just having to think about it.

Shankar Vedantam: Hm. And you find this in a number of studies that no one is usually behaving like the nosy mom. No one's asking us to reveal our secret, because of course they don't even know that we have a secret.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. You could think about sort of common secret for example is, say, infidelity. That's not a thing we go around asking our friends and family about, "Hey, have you ever cheated on your partner?" It just doesn't work that way.

Shankar Vedantam: So if concealing, the truth from prying eyes is not what makes secret keeping hard or keeping secrets hard, what have you found is the real psychological cost of keeping secrets?

Michael Slepian: So when you're keeping a secret, what you're not doing is you're not letting people in on something that probably really matters to you. Otherwise if you didn't care about it you might feel free to talk about it. When you choose to be alone with something, you're often worse off for it if it's something you need help with. Now, you're not getting the help you need. If it's something you need emotional support for, now you're not getting that either. So we're missing out on a lot of things when we're keeping a secret. And if you only have a secret to yourself, well, you only have yourself to figure it out. And you're going to find yourself turning that secret over and over in your mind and potentially ruminating on it. And that's where we see the harm. It's not having to hide a secret, it's having to live with it alone.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you hear any of that in Lauren's story, Michael?

Michael Slepian: Yeah. And this is what's so interesting about secrecy. I think we think about these sort of specific kinds of secrets, infidelity or cheating or something involving our relationships, our finances. And something like, say, the timeline of events may not seem like a big deal to certain people, but it's the implications that we're concerned about. And again, like I didn't get the sense that people were pushing her to reveal that her timeline on those details of her story, but still it was something that really mattered to her. And clearly, it was something that was on her mind quite frequently.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that was striking to me that I thought spoke to the work that you've done is how much what was happening was happening inside her own mind. In other words, I'm not even sure this actually is a secret that mattered very much to other people or would have the reputational concerns that she thought it was going to have. So much of the secret keeping, the effects of secret keeping, the psychological consequences, all of that was happening inside Lauren's head.

Michael Slepian: Exactly. And that's what we see in our own research that a lot of it is sort of in your own head in that way. And it's taken psychology a long time to find that idea, because we were sort of focused for too long on these sort of moments of hiding. That turns out to be not where the real action is, in terms of when secrets actually harm us.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, it's not necessarily the content of a secret that damages our wellbeing. It's the rumination and worry about what would happen if the secret came to light, that ends up being a burden. Of course, like Lauren, most of us don't foresee all the complexities that can emerge when we keep a secret. This is partly why secret keeping is so ubiquitous. Michael found in one of his studies that we not only tend to keep a lot of secrets. We all tend to keep the same kinds of secrets.

Michael Slepian: So we asked a couple of thousand people about what's a secret you're currently keeping, and we've coded those responses over and over with research assistants. And eventually arrived at a set of 38 categories that captured the most common kinds of secrets people keep. And when I say common, I really mean that these are the common ones that these 38 categories really cover the ground of secrecy pretty well. When we ask someone whether they have any secrets on this list, 97% of people have at least one of the secrets on this list. And the average person has 13 of these secrets concurrently.

Shankar Vedantam: What kind of secrets are these?

Michael Slepian: So you're not going to be surprised at all. It's going to be exactly the kinds of things you think people would be keeping secret, so things involving relationships, whether that's romantic discontent, or infidelity or something we call extra-relational thoughts, is a very common secret. You're in a relationship, you have some kind of romantic thought about another person. People tend to not talk about that. And then things like self-harm, experiences of trauma, discontent at work or discontent with your social life, issues around money, and habits and addictions, and even ambitions.

Shankar Vedantam: Secret-keeping tends to trigger mind games. We start out by asking what other people will think of us if they knew our secret. We decide they will think less of us, which is why we decide to hide something. But soon, we find ourselves asking different questions. What happens if people find out I've hidden something from them? What will they think of me now? In The Sopranos, the hit TV show about the mob, Tony Soprano does something unthinkable for a macho killer. He suffers a meltdown and goes to see a therapist.

Lorraine Bracco, as Dr. Jennifer Melfi: My understanding from Dr. Cusimano, your family physician, is that you collapsed. Possibly a panic attack You were unable to breathe.

James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano: They said it was a panic attack. Of course, all the blood work and the neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here.

Lorraine Bracco, as Dr. Jennifer Melfi: You don't agree that you had a panic attack? How are you feeling now?

James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano: Good, fine. Back at work.

Lorraine Bracco, as Dr. Jennifer Melfi: What line of work are you in?

James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano: Waste management consultant.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is a scene that you must have thought about as you're doing your research, Michael.

Michael Slepian: Absolutely. What I really like about this example is it highlights that a secret can be really burdensome, and it's not at all hard to hide. Tony just said "waste management" without difficulty. And it's not hard for him to simply just use that as a way to cover the secret. If you can just simply say two words and the concealment problem is super easy. And so you would think if the problem with secrecy was having concealment that this would be a really easy secret for him, and in fact it's not. It's far from it.

Shankar Vedantam: The conceit of the television show is that when the mobster goes to see the psychologist, at some point, this is unthinkable for a mobster to do and it would harm the mobsters reputation. And so Tony then goes to great lengths to try and preserve the secret that he's actually seeing a therapist from his fellow mobsters. And it starts to affect him at some level in terms of his own perception of himself. I'm wondering if you can talk about this idea, that keeping secrets at some level damages our own view of ourselves, and in some ways harms our ability to think of ourselves as being authentic people.

Michael Slepian: Yes. So when we're holding secrets back from other people, we're not having these conversations about these things, and this is what we can never realize if we don't talk about the secret with other people. People are generally understanding, especially with the people who are close to you. Maybe it's going to be quite difficult to talk about the secret, but you can and it often makes things better, we find.

Shankar Vedantam: You've also looked at secret keeping in the context of politics, Michael. You ran an interesting experiment, I think right after the 2016 presidential election, which was of course between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What was the experiment you ran, and what did you find?

Michael Slepian: So when we ran this study we were thinking... We had a very clear idea about who might be in our study. We were asking for people to come online and tell us about their experience. People who specifically voted for someone, but told other people something else. That they voted for someone else or that they voted for no one or whatever it was, these were people who were not being forthright about their political support and keeping it secret. And we just simply asked people, who are you keeping the secret from? Why? And what are the effects? And these were secrets people were keeping from their friends, family, and even their spouses. And we saw far more than we expected, people who were saying that they were secretly supporting Trump. And when we ask people why, the number one reason was they were concerned for their reputation.

Michael Slepian: They were concerned that people would think differently of them if they voiced publicly their support for Trump. And so it's interesting to think about what that means. They weren't having conversations with others that maybe they should have had. And sort of the secondary reason people were keeping this a secret was not wanting to get in fights and not wanting to create arguments. And so if that was the reason why people felt they had to keep their secret, if it was just simply to avoid getting in arguments with the people around them, that didn't seem to be very harmful. And so this is this idea again coming, when you feel like it may not be easy but you're doing it for the right thing, we see some less harm in secrecy. But when participants were especially concerned for their reputation, they found themselves having to think about the secret quite a bit. And the more they did so, the less authentic they felt with the people around them.

Shankar Vedantam: Examining the intention behind a secret can be a good way to understand what and whether it will cost you to keep it hidden. It's easy, for example, to shrug off a secret designed to avoid a political tiff with a coworker. Both you and your colleague know there are things you keep from each other to make work life go smoothly. But other secrets are not so easy to brush away. That's because these secrets reveal what you think of others, what you think they think of you. They reveal your insecurities, your vulnerabilities. These secrets tend to produce one of the most damaging consequences to secret keeping. It's something that Michael calls mind wandering.

Michael Slepian: Because a secret often deals with something that's important to you or ongoing, because the secret often feels unresolved, because you haven't had the conversations you would normally have... Our minds return to unresolved concerns and outstanding intentions and ongoing issues frequently, because those are the things that require our attention. If something needs some kind of resolution, or you need to work on something, whether you like it or not your mind is going to turn to it over and over. And people don't often put on their calendar, okay from 10:00 AM to 10:30, I'm going to think about my secret.

Michael Slepian: People don't plan to think about their secret, but their secret comes to mind anyway and so that's why we describe it as mind wandering. There's certain features about a secret that may get your attention when you're not focused on a work task, when you're not focused on the thing in front of you, your mind can be drawn toward your secret. Things that make you think of it, things remind you of it. And especially when it's something that you feel not good about, or you feel alone with, or you feel inauthentic for. Once that secret comes to mind, it can be hard to put it down.

Shankar Vedantam: You talk at one point in your research studies about the difference between experiencing shame and experiencing guilt when it comes to secrets. I'm wondering if you can talk about that distinction, but also talk about it in the context of this mind wandering idea. Our secrets that are more tied to shame, more likely to cause our minds to return to them over and over again, or is guilt more likely to produce mind wandering?

Michael Slepian: Yeah. So psychologists make this very important distinction between these two words. And the idea is that, when you feel guilty you feel that something you've done is wrong, you've caused some harm, your actions were wrong. So when people feel guilty, they're more likely to feel remorse and be interested in making amends. But when you feel ashamed, you don't think about how your behavior was wrong, you think about how there's something wrong with you. When people feel ashamed, they feel like they're a bad person and they feel helpless and frozen, there's nothing they can do about it. And so we find that when secrets make people feel ashamed, they're much more likely to have their mind turn over the secret over and over, and the secret comes to mind much more frequently.

Shankar Vedantam: So when most of us think of secrets, I think the metaphor that I think jumps to mind is this metaphor of a shield. We have this vision of someone trying to pry the secret out of us and us trying to sort of hold a shield up to sort of defend ourselves or defend ourselves against someone breaking through our defenses. But I think the picture that you're painting here is almost a different kind of metaphor, that it's really not the shield that really is motivating how we're thinking about secrets that are in our minds.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. At the end of the day, people want to talk about these things and secrecy is us stopping ourselves from doing so. And so you're right it's not a shield, it's like a cork is the better metaphor perhaps. We normally talk to other people to get their help, and this is an instance where we're plugging that, we're not allowing that to happen. And that has all these harmful consequences.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, the effects of secrets on feelings of isolation and the paradoxical effect of being the owner of secrets in the workplace. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Michael Slepian studies the effects of keeping secrets and being the holder of secrets. He finds that secrets can have pervasive effects in our lives. They make us feel less authentic, especially if our minds are constantly wandering back to the secret and wondering when we are going to reveal all. Michael, you started your exploration of secrets in part because you were interested in the metaphors people use when they talk about secrets, when they talk about the burden of a secret, for example. Talk to me about this idea, that in some ways you started out looking at the role that metaphors might play, and then you discovered something actually quite surprising when you conducted experiments into this.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. So people have this curious way of talking about secrets. People will say that they have a heavy secret or the secret weighs them down, or they have to carry a secret around with them. People talk about a secret almost as if it's this physical weight that they are weighed down by and have to carry with them. So our original studies were just interested in learning about that metaphor. Is that just a figure of speech, or does that metaphor reflect actually how we think about secrets in a more deep way?

Shankar Vedantam: In a series of studies, Michael asked people to think about secrets and then asked them to judge the steepness of hills or other physical tasks. Volunteers judged hills as steeper and distances as further when they were burdened with a secret. It's as if the secret had spilled into the physical world and was weighing them down. You can see this in one scene in the TV show, The Office. The character Kevin successfully manages to hold on to the secret that one of his colleagues is having an affair with another colleague's spouse.

Brian Baumgartner, as Kevin Malone: I knew it the whole time. I kept a secret. I kept the secret so good. You didn't freaking know, but I knew.

Oscar Nunez, as Oscar Martinez: He knew.

Brian Baumgartner, as Kevin Malone: Yes, we did it.

Oscar Nunez, as Oscar Martinez: You did it, Kevin.

Brian Baumgartner, as Kevin Malone: Yes. Oh, I did it.

Shankar Vedantam: What's striking to me Michael is the relief that we hear in Kevin's voice when he no longer has to hold onto the secret. That speaks exactly to what you're just talking about.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. Yeah. It feels good to get it off our chest, but just getting it off your chest isn't enough. It's having a conversation about that secret, which is actually when you get the help that you need. And so for example, revealing a secret anonymously online, that does feel really good to sort of anonymously just put your secret out in the world, but it's not as good as talking to another person about it.

Shankar Vedantam: In 2019, Michael took part in a project led by the New York City based organization Subway Therapy to explore this very idea. The study involves setting up a telephone booth in Central Park, but it wasn't just any telephone booth.

Michael Slepian: It's that secret telephone, get something off your chest. And if you pick up the receiver, you could listen to secrets people have previously shared with the phone and you could leave your own.

Secret recording #1: I gave up my keto diet because of waffles.

Secret recording #2: Dating is exhausting, and I'm afraid I'm going to die alone.

Secret recording #3: I like to eat egg salad on the toilet.

Secret recording #4: How do I hang up?

Shankar Vedantam: So this speaks to what you just said a second ago. So in some ways, this was a way for people to get the secrets off their chest, but not necessarily to have a conversation with someone about it.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. And if your starting point is you haven't told a single soul and you think you'll never will, getting it off your chest is a really great starting point because you realize this is something I can say out loud, maybe this is something I can move forward on, maybe this is not so bad, maybe it's not as bad as I think. But you're more likely to arrive at those helpful conclusions if you're in conversation with another person. So it's a great place to get started and hopefully it motivated people to think, "Oh, actually I could talk about this with someone too next time."

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if part of the reason we hesitate to share secrets is that we imagine people would relate to us as if they were strangers, but the act of sharing secrets with someone communicates to them, "Look, I trust you. I trust that I'm sharing something that makes me vulnerable with you." And that act of trust in some ways transforms this person from being a stranger to someone that we trust. And is it possible that in some ways we underestimate the power that sharing our secrets has on other people, on the effects that it will have on them in terms of their ability to respond well to us?

Michael Slepian: Absolutely. I think people totally underestimate that. Some people are aware of it, but I think some people miss out on this way to use our sensitive personal information that when we're feeling comfortable with someone, even if we only just met them, revealing something sensitive is a sure-fire way to sort of jumpstart that relationship or deepen that relationship. And it's a way to sort of form these social connections and deepen them.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if we can talk about the effects of secrets in the workplace. Many people in companies have to hold secrets, and this is especially true for executives or managers. What effects does this have on them?

Michael Slepian: So this is an interesting situation, because now it's not necessarily your choice to have kept the secret. This might be something enforced from up above. And so we find that in some ways, a secret that you have to keep on behalf of your workplace looks a lot like a personal secret in some ways, but there's some important differences, too. So the similarity is it can be isolating. If there's something really significant going on in your work life that you're not allowed to tell your spouse about, that you're not even allowed to tell other coworkers about, that's just a frustrating experience of being isolated with that information. And it's not easy, just because normally being able to talk about work that's one of the major conversation topics with other people, and not being able to have that conversation is frustrating and isolating. But there is a silver lining. If your boss has given you something very high-level information to keep secret, you recognize that you're being trusted with really sensitive information. In a personal domain, that fosters feelings of intimacy. In the workplace domain, that fosters feelings of status.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the effects the COVID pandemic may have had on the way we think and keep secrets. Certainly at a minimum, people who are working from home no longer have sort of the distance from their partners and home life that they might've once had when they were working in a workplace. Do you feel like COVID has meant that there are actually fewer secrets within families, because people are seeing more of their partners more of the time?

Michael Slepian: Maybe. It's so hard to know how this might have an effect. The way I've thought about it is, at the very least it's reduced the number of in-person interactions we have. And I think when people think about the difficulties of concealment, they're kind of thinking about live interactions, not conversations on Zoom. Conversations on Zoom are more often down to business, and there's not like chitchat, like "How was your summer?" We kind of get down to business a little sooner. So I think in some ways it might be easier to keep secrets from the people now you're no longer seeing in person. Now, could spending more time with your partner make secrecy harder? Our data doesn't exactly suggest that whether you spend a lot of time or not much time, that doesn't seem to be what matters so much. It's again, whether you feel alone with a secret or ashamed to have it or inauthentic to have it. Now, maybe when you're around your partner more, maybe you're reminded of your secret more and in that case, it might get harder.

Shankar Vedantam: Before the pandemic, when Michael was still interacting with people face-to-face, he had a secret of his own that weighed on him for years. It all started while he was talking with his colleagues at Columbia about an upcoming summer break.

Michael Slepian: So in this instance, I was telling people, I'm going to be away for a week. I'm going to be unplugged and spending time with my friends in California.

Shankar Vedantam: And were you in fact going to California?

Michael Slepian: Yes, but it was just a pit stop to continue on to somewhere else.

Shankar Vedantam: Michael, in fact, was heading to Burning Man, an annual gathering in the Nevada desert.

Michael Slepian: I think when people hear that term, they sort of imagine like a bunch of naked people out in the desert doing drugs and who knows what else, which is partly happening, for sure. People hug each other even if they're strangers. And there's just a lot of sort of social connection and emphasis on creativity and sort of self-expression and freedom of expression and inclusivity. But there's a lot of other things as well. Festival is not quite the right word, but it's like an arts festival and sort of a massive social gathering. It's creating an entire city from scratch that wasn't there before and a totally functional city for a week and more, and then taking it entirely away, leaving not a trace behind. And that's what I was keeping secret from my colleagues, that I was participating in that.

Shankar Vedantam: And it's striking because all of the things that you just said are things that I think you would be perfectly happy saying that you subscribe to. That you are all for social connection and inclusivity and all of those things. Why did you feel like you could not tell your colleagues where you were going?

Michael Slepian: The idea of discussing this at work, it felt like I couldn't. It was somehow not appropriate or not professional. And I'm imagining like this scenario when they were like, "Oh, were you naked? Did you do drugs? What did you do there?" And just feeling like, I can't talk about this with you.

Shankar Vedantam: Michael wasn't just uncomfortable that a colleague might imagine him in a not suitable for work situation. He worried about the cascading effect of the secret getting out.

Michael Slepian: So, like, imagine I tell one colleague, it's like okay, now what happens to that information? Does that spread to the next colleague and am I no longer in control over it? I think that's sort of the concern.

Shankar Vedantam: So when you came back and had these conversations with people at the end of that summer, what did you tell people when they said, "How was your unplugged vacation in California?" What did you say?

Michael Slepian: It's so funny because I felt so uncomfortable answering it, because I am like dancing around this thing and saying like, "Oh, it was great. Or like, "It's great to be back." Which actually is not what it normally feels like at all, but it feels weird to try to answer the question and just to step over this huge secret in the process.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. Did you have the same feeling that Lauren did, that after some time the secret felt like it was growing, that it had taken on a life of its own?

Michael Slepian: Well, there's a point at which you're like stepping over the secret, dancing around information with different people. And maybe I think I did tell one person, but I was like, oh no, like that person will they know not to talk to this person? And it does sort of grow in your mind and it's like, well, what do you do?

Shankar Vedantam: What's so striking of course, is that you were behaving exactly like your research subjects in your experiments, whose minds kept wandering back to the thing they were trying to keep secret.

Michael Slepian: Yeah, that's entirely right. I'm trying not to lie in answering people's questions. And so the only way to do that without just saying something that's flat out untrue is to give really short responses to questions. And that is definitely a form of social distancing.

Shankar Vedantam: And that itself might sort of prompt people to say, "Okay, Michael, really doesn't want to talk about what happened on his summer vacation." Or maybe even, "Michael doesn't want to be friends with me, because he's giving me monosyllabic answers to my questions about what he did on a summer vacation."

Michael Slepian: Yeah. I think definitely I felt myself not connecting during the very moment of which I could have.

Shankar Vedantam: But Michael did end up sharing his secret, sort of. After their third summer at Burning Man, his wife asked him if it was okay for her to post a picture of the event on Facebook, a picture that Michael was in. And he said, "Sure."

Michael Slepian: And that was sort of a first step in making it not entirely secret, but of course as is our world today, of course I'm like Facebook friends with colleagues. And so by letting it sort of sit there, I was opening up the possibility that this is not going to be secret any longer.

Shankar Vedantam: Although this was a circuitous way of revealing the secret, it didn't take long for his colleagues to pick up on it. When school was back in session, all of Michael's colleagues gathered for a beginning of the year seminar.

Michael Slepian: Everyone attends. And so it was this full packed stadium seating lecture hall, and people are just chatting, talking about their summer break. And I hear someone behind me say, "Oh, hey, how was Burning Man?" And I had to take a moment. I was like, wait, no, this is not how I intended for this to go for this just to be spoken out loud inside of a lecture hall.

Shankar Vedantam: And what did you say in that moment, besides feeling like you wanted to vanish into a small hole? What did you say?

Michael Slepian: I think I just was like, "Good." It was certainly not something I wanted to talk about at length at that moment. And that person later immediately understood that and said, "Hey, sorry, I didn't mean to like out you if that's what I did." And at that moment I started realizing, maybe life would be easier for this to not be a secret. I thought it was the other way around. I thought life would be easier to just hold it back from people at work. But then I'm sort of doing these awkward dances around information and giving short answers to questions and maybe that's not better.

Shankar Vedantam: So how did you change your behavior after that, Michael? What did you do?

Michael Slepian: I think this conversation we're having is certainly the biggest step in that direction. I still don't go around walking up to my senior colleagues, the folks who are deciding my tenure case saying like, "Hey, this is this thing I just came back from." But I do probably talk about it more freely with my junior colleagues now.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, did anyone have the reaction that you either implicitly or explicitly feared? Did anyone think less of you, Michael, as a result of their learning that you went to Burning Man?

Michael Slepian: I see the nature of your question. I think you're right that the answer is no. I think people were like, "That's cool." It wasn't this terrible thing that I imagined.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering what that reveals, because I think at one level it might reveal of course, that your fears were out of whack with reality, which is of course a useful insight for us to have. But I'm also wondering if it reveals something else, which is that when we think about our secrets, we are often consumed and obsessed with our own lives. And our lives loom large in our own imaginations, because they're of course our lives. And we imagine mistakenly that other people are just as interested in our lives as we are in what happens to us. And much of the time, they're not.

Michael Slepian: That's perfectly correct. This is the problem with having a secret that you're not talking about with other people. Of course, you're going to imagine the worst-case scenario. What's to stop you? Once you start talking about it from people you realize how far away that worst-case scenario is.

Shankar Vedantam: When we started this episode, we talked about Lauren and we talked about her experience and her growing concern that now that the secret that she was keeping from her friends and coworker is actually not her biggest concern anymore. Her biggest concern was they would find out that she had kept a secret from them. A secret that in their minds was actually quite trivial. They wouldn't think less of her because of the secret, they would think less of her because she had kept a secret from them.

Michael Slepian: Yeah. I definitely understand that experience. And there's so many things that just happen when you keep a secret. Not only now are you trying to figure out how to handle this information, how do you handle the fact that you've been keeping it secret for so long if you're eventually going to talk about it with someone? It's a tough one.

Shankar Vedantam: This was the uncomfortable position that Lauren was in when I first interviewed her many months ago. She had responded to a request we made asking listeners to share their secrets. But when I caught up with her recently, she told me she had become much more open about sharing her secret. She's found that talking plainly has not only made her life less complicated, it's made her feel better. It's like she doesn't have a load on her shoulders anymore. We heard the very same thing from many people who shared their secrets with us.

Listener 1: Thank you so much for taking the time to listen.

Listener 2: It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Listener 3: I'm hopeful, you know?

Listener 2: I can talk about the secret now, because I realize now it's just the truth.

Michael Slepian: I think at the end of the day, people just don't want to be alone. Don't want to be alone with something, don't want to be alone with this set of thoughts, because it's hard to say, okay, I'm alone with this thing and I'm not going to talk about it with other people. I think why it feels good, it's not just that someone has heard it, but you're no longer alone with it.

Shankar Vedantam: When he isn't at Burning Man, Michael Slepian is a psychologist at Columbia University. Michael, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Michael Slepian: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung heroes today are Ben and John Adair. Ben runs the LA-based podcast production company, Western Sound. At the start of the pandemic, he and his team needed a solution for how to record guests while everyone was staying at home. So Ben and his twin brother John created that solution, an app called Talk Sync. We've been using Talk Sync to record our interviews since the fall. And it's made independent production so much easier. Thank you, Ben and John, For seeing a problem and developing solution that can benefit so many of us in the podcasting community. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you like this episode, please be sure to share it with a friend. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.


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