Keeping secrets can cause you to ‘come undone’

"People have limited willpower to exert self-control. It's the constant monitoring to make sure you don't slip up that's so exhausting," says Clayton R. Critcher. (Credit: Daniela Vladimirova/Flickr)

The stress of keeping a secret or concealing what you really think can be exhausting. It can limit physical stamina, impair judgment, and reduce productivity, researchers say.

“Before you hit the ‘send’ button and fire off that angry email, take a deep breath. Be aware that concealment may keep you from performing optimally and might impair your judgment,” says Melissa J. Ferguson, associate professor in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Ask yourself: What else is going on in the back of my mind?”


Actually, that’s a trick question—typical of the experimental tasks required of student volunteer research subjects in the studies. Some students were forbidden to utter certain words (like “breakfast” and “therefore”) in mock interview situations. The study’s findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The constant work—monitoring their thoughts and trying not to say “therefore” or reveal sexual orientation in response to leading questions—caused what psychologists call “self-regulatory exertion and depletion.” “Depleted” subjects underperformed in a variety of mental and physical tests immediately after their stressful interviews.

“People have limited willpower to exert self-control. It’s the constant monitoring to make sure you don’t slip up that’s so exhausting,” says Clayton R. Critcher, a professor in University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. All that self-regulating can reduce productivity in the workplace.

Constant concealment

Ferguson says the research team chose sexual orientation as another kind of secret to keep because of the “social stigma” attached to that information and the fact that people often feel as though they have to conceal it. “Sexual orientation is still a sensitive part of our identities in many social and professional situations, often because there are real and harmful consequences of revealing it due to prejudice and discrimination.”

Thus, a gay man trying to conceal sexual orientation must self-monitor to avoid saying, “My boyfriend and I go there all the time!” Thinking fast, he might say, “My friend and I … ” But constant concealment and speech-suppression take a toll. Even a short span of concealment, around 10 minutes, can extract a cost. Experimental subjects who had struggled to conceal during brief, mock interviews did poorly on a variety of subsequent tests.

There were spatial intelligence tests, physical endurance tests, and one with special resonance for college students, the Teaching Assistant’s (TA) obnoxious email test. Student-subjects received emails purportedly from TAs who controlled their grades.

“You clearly didn’t focus on the key elements of the assignment,” the email read. “I don’t know how anyone could have made such an obvious mistake.” Then the experimental subjects were told to respond “appropriately” to the insulting message. Even though an equally rude reply could hurt their grades, students suffering self-regulatory depletion—and diminished judgment—replied and hit the “send” button without hesitation.

“Of course, no one lost points for sending rude emails. This was just a psychology experiment—with the customary safeguards of confidentiality, and a little fun thrown in,” Ferguson says. “What everyone gained was a better understanding: concealment can be harmful. Not only does a lack of openness imperil interpersonal relationships, it can undermine people’s intellectual and physical abilities.”

Cornell University and University of California, Berkeley, funded the research.

Source: Cornell University