SCIENCE

Keeping A Secret 'Physically' Weighs You Down, According To Science

04/23/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated May 15, 2015
Shutterstock / Sukhonosova Anastasia

Keeping a secret is a bigger burden than you might imagine.

In fact, new research suggests that keeping a secret makes you feel weighed down -- literally -- and even limits your ability to get things done.

"Spending effort to keep your secret leads you to feel [like] you have less effort and energy for other tasks, and so they seem more challenging and forbidding," Dr. Michael Slepian, a researcher at Columbia Business School and the leader of the research, told The Huffington Post in an email. "This is the same kind of outcome we see when people are carrying physical burdens."

Two kinds of secret. For the research, 452 men and women were asked to think of either a highly stress-inducing “preoccupying” secret from their own lives -- one regarding money, sexual orientation, or a health concern, for example -- or a less-stressful “non-preoccupying” secret from their lives, which doesn't cause daily concern. Then the people were shown a photo of a hill and asked to judge its steepness.

What did the researchers find? The study participants who were asked to recall the personal preoccupying secret consistently judged the hill as steeper than those who recalled a personal non-preoccupying secret. According to the researchers, judging a hill as steeper is evidence of seeing the world as more challenging.

The researchers concluded that harboring preoccupying secrets can influence perceptual judgments, and even behavior.

“Being preoccupied by a secret at work can be demotivating,” Slepian said in a written statement. “And we know if you are less motivated, you perform less well.”

What's the fix? In a separate experiment, the researchers found that revealing a secret eliminated the odd effect that harboring a secret can have.

“When you talk about your secret, you start thinking about it constructively — processing it, making sense of it, learning how to cope with it — reducing your preoccupation with that secret and taking you off the path of burden," Slepian said in the statement.

He added in the email that, in cases when it might be better to keep the secret, then simply writing the secret down could still mitigate its negative effects.

A paper describing the research was published in the April 2015 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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