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We know your secrets

Or at least, the science behind them

Published on Apr. 9, 2012 | Print | Share | Recommend ()

With the possible exceptions of the Dalai Lama and the Dos Equis man, we’re pretty sure everyone has secrets. We gossip about those of others and hide our own from all but precisely chosen confidants. They cause breakups, fights, and political scandals.

So how do they really work? With the help of social psychologists Ashley Waggonner Denton, from IU, and Anita Kelly, author of “Psychology of Secrets,” let’s explore the secrets behind secrets.

Why do we keep secrets?
As humans, we have a fundamental motivation to want to belong to a group or community, according to Kelly’s book. Often, we fear others disapprove of our secrets. This leads to the common feeling of embarrassment usually associated with secrets.

What’s the biggest secret?
Sex (we’re not surprised, either).

Research shows that sexual secrets like experimenting with sexual acts, desire for a sexual relationship, and even rape are the most commonly held secrets. This is even more true for college students. 

Other common secrets are illegal behavior, personal feelings of inadequacy, and traumatic experiences.

Why are secrets so hard to keep?
In a way, our brains reject suppression of information.

“If you ask someone not to think about or talk about something, it’s natural that you will have a very hard time not thinking about it,” says Denton, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology who teaches L225: In-depth Look at Gossip and Rumor.

Why do we reveal secrets?
It all comes back to our instinct to bond with a group.

“When you tell someone something that is supposed to be kept in confidence, you’re saying, ‘I trust you with this information,’” Denton says.

Denton says we reveal things about other people a lot more often than we think — but that doesn’t mean it’s all negative.

“Gossip is the main way we learn personal things about other people,” she says. “You wouldn’t directly ask people how much money they make or who they’ve slept with, but we learn that kind of information all the time.”

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