Excerpted from The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Well-Being, Relationships, and Who We Are. Copyright © 2022 by Michael Slepian. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
When you go through the 38 categories, there may be a few for which you think, Well, I have had this experience, and I don’t really tell people about it, but is it a secret?
What sets a secret apart from other things we don’t talk about is an intention — specifically, the intention to keep the information unknown. To help identify which experiences count as a secret, we need to distinguish secrecy from privacy.
You can draw a line between secrecy and privacy by considering secrecy as an intention to hold specific information back, and privacy as a reflection of how much you broadcast personal information, in general. People who are more private require closeness before they let you in. Yet those who are less private may be happy to disclose personal information, and not just to friends and family, but to coworkers, acquaintances, and even people they’ve just met. You may not want to discuss your sexual experiences at work out of concern for privacy (and for what is appropriate), but this is very different from wanting to keep some specific experience a secret. In both cases, you are taking control of your personal information, but for different reasons.
Aside from sex, money is another example of something you may not talk about but may not be intentionally keeping secret. You might not talk about your paycheck out of concern for privacy, rather than wanting nobody to ever know what it looks like. At the same time, there may be other specifics you intend to keep hidden, such as a particularly unwise financial decision. These examples help us see that privacy and secrecy can coexist, and there can be gray area in between. So, can we ever really separate them? Yes, and the person who knows best—whether something is private or secret—is you.
I find in my research that the more immoral we consider a personal experience or action, the more it feels like a secret, rather than something that is merely private. I also find that the more we think others would find the information relevant to their own lives, the more something unsaid feels like secrecy instead of privacy.
We know this from a study involving 1,000 participants in committed relationships. I asked the participants to think about something they had not disclosed to their romantic partner. This was easy for them to do. We all have many such things, ranging from the consequential to the mundane. Some of the things people hadn’t disclosed were acts they considered highly immoral, like cheating on their partner and misrepresenting their past. The participants said that these felt very much like secrets. But other things did not seem immoral. For example, one participant told me he quite enjoys having the apartment to himself, and doesn’t mind when his partner is away for the weekend. In fact, it makes him quite happy. Another participant told me that her partner doesn’t know how much she spends on yarn. These things didn’t feel like they mattered all that much, and so not mentioning them didn’t feel like keeping secrets.
A commonly avoided topic within romantic relationships is information about past relationships. Sure, when we first get together with someone there is some pertinent information to trade, but we tend not to see much value in discussing the intimate facts with our current partner. It’s not that this information is being held back, but rather we have no need to talk about it.
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I find in my research that there is another major reason you may choose to avoid a conversation topic: you are trying to avoid a conflict. A conversation at the Thanksgiving table might turn toward politics, where your views are well known and not secret. But you might prefer to stay tight-lipped rather than get into a fight. Perhaps you know that you are not going to change your family member’s mind on a political issue, so why bother? You might even have the perfect comeback on the tip of your tongue and yet you hold it back. This is very different from, out of fear of being judged, not wanting other people to know who you voted for in a recent Election.
You can bite your tongue in conversation for any number of reasons, of which secrecy is only one. Whatever actions you take around keeping your secret, and whatever the context is that surrounds this decision, what is common across all secrets is one thing: you intend for other people to not learn the information. This is what makes something a secret.
The secrets you keep
When I share my list of the 38 common secrets, people are often interested in how their number of current secrets compares to the average number we see in our research, 13. Often, the question they have in mind is: Am I more secretive than the average person? To answer this question, it’s important to understand that the number of secrets you have from the list captures not only how many secrets you have, but also how often you get yourself into the kinds of situations that people tend to keep secret. So, what makes us more or less likely to land in such situations? And when we do, what makes us more or less likely to keep them secret?
When we start talking about tendencies for secrecy, we bump right up into personality psychology. A common way of measuring personality is to ask about five broad traits: Openness (open to new experiences and to things being complicated), Conscientiousness (organized, disciplined), Extraversion (enthusiastic, social), Agreeableness (polite, eager to please), and Neuroticism (the less polite word for high negative emotion; many prefer to call this “low emotional stability” instead). Just remember the acronym OCEAN if you ever need this information in an emergency.
My research finds that someone who is more secretive (whether having had many experiences from the list or just a few) tends to be less extraverted and less emotionally stable, but more conscientious. The profile of someone more likely to get involved in the kinds of situations that people keep secret, however, is that of someone who is open, extraverted, and emotionally stable, but less agreeable and less conscientious.
This means that while extraversion gets you into more situations that people might keep secret, it is also associated with keeping fewer secrets. Neuroticism and conscientiousness are associated with getting less involved in these situations, but keeping more of them secret.
In general, we see lower well-being among people who are more secretive. But simply having more experiences that people tend to keep secret is not associated with lower well-being.
This is good news. Having many experiences on the list of commonly kept secrets does not mean that you have to suffer. It is keeping these experiences secret that brings potential harm to your well-being, and possibly to your relationships.
You might have noticed that the categories of secrets on our list are those kept by adults. These describe the bulk of our secrets, because people have far more years of adulthood than childhood during which to keep secrets. But adulthood is not where the story of secrecy begins.