Secrets can be tricky things; knowing when to keep one and when to tell someone else about it isn’t always clear. But if you’ve ever wondered how many secrets you can keep, science has an answer: Most people keep around 13, five of which they’ve never told another soul. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined 13,000 secrets kept by a variety of participants, and the results tell us much more than just the number of secrets people are capable of keeping at any given time. The whole thing sheds new light on how we think about and understand secrets — because a secret isn’t just something that occurs the moment you conceal something from someone else. There’s a lot more at play here.
The science of secrets has long fascinated researchers. Generally speaking, we know that secrets are somewhat hazardous to our health: We know, for example, that secrets heighten anxiety, affecting everything from the quality of our sleep to the strength of our immune systems. We know that keeping secrets is hard because doing so requires so much multitasking. They even make us perceive other aspects of our life differently: People who are weighed down by secrets metaphorically feel that hills are steeper, that distances are farther, and that more effort would be required to complete certain physical tasks, just as people who are weighed down by physical burdens do.
But apparently none of that stops us from keeping secrets — although it turns out that it’s not just the act of concealing something that affects us.
For their study, the researchers gathered their data in a variety of different ways (13,000 secrets is, uh, a lot). Many of them relied on administering what the researchers call in their paper the Common Secrets Questionnaire (CSQ) — a questionnaire developed specifically for this piece of research which presents participants with 38 categories of secrets and asks them if they have any of them. The categories are pretty comprehensive overall; they include everything from “committing an illegal act” to “a marriage proposal.” (The full list of categories can be found on page six of the paper.) The paper chronicles a whopping 10 different studies, so exactly how the questionnaire was administered varied greatly; in some cases, for example, it was administered to participants in a lab setting, while in others, it was given to a random selection of strangers in New York’s Central Park. Some studies, however, did not rely on the CSQ — some, for instance, recruited participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service and asked them specific questions about their long-term relationships under the guise of conducting a “relationship study.”
Across the studies that used the Common Secrets Questionnaire, the researchers found that the average person reported having secrets belonging to 13 of the 38 categories. What’s more, of those 13 secrets, five of them were secrets they had never told anyone about. I’m honestly not sure whether I think that 13 seems like a relatively tiny amount or a rather large one; on the one hand, I’m pretty sure that I’ve kept way more than 13 secrets over the course of my lifetime, but on the other, most of them haven’t been anything of import. I can probably count on one hand the number of secrets I’ve kept that felt like Big Deals at the time — many of which turned out to be smaller deals than I thought. (One not-so-stellar grade was not, in fact, the end of the world, although for someone who was generally good at school, it felt like the WORST THING EVER to me at the tender age of 17.)
But more interesting to me is how the researchers are interpreting those findings: They’re using them to redefine what “secrecy” is in its entirety. “We argue that defining secrecy too narrowly as ‘acts of withholding during social interactions’ has yielded an inadequate understanding of how secrets are experienced, the effects that they have on people, and why they lead to these outcomes,” the researchers write. According to the paper, the following three characteristics are a huge part of secrecy, even though most prior research hasn't acknowledged them:
- The intention to conceal. By which the researchers mean that secrets aren’t born the moment the concealment actually happens — secrecy emerges when the person doing the concealment strikes upon the intention to conceal something in the first place. The timeline of secrecy matters; there’s more to it than one particular moment.
- Wandering minds. Apparently our minds wander to secrets more often than they actually spend concealing said secrets, even outside of “concealment settings” (that is, places where we’re actively concealing something).
- Well-being. Specifically in relation to mind-wandering — the habit of mind-wandering to secrets predicts our well-being more strongly than the act of concealing something. When our minds wander often to secrets we have, it’s often indicative of feeling kind of terrible about those secrets.
This new theory of secrecy, the researchers argue, “suggests ways that people with secrets might better cope with the secrets they have, and suggests novel ways for researchers to investigate secrecy.”
The study has some pretty major implications that might apply to a lot of different aspects of our lives — how secrets affect our health, why they tend to be so harmful to romantic relationships, and more. Personally, I wonder whether it might also be a step towards moving away from some of the more harmful aspects of our culture.
A lot of secrets are kept because they’re looked down upon or stigmatized by our society. Consider, for example, that “sexual orientation”is one of the 38 categories of secrets identified by the CSQ. Consider that “a hobby” is one, too. Or “a counternormative behavior” — also one of the 38 categories. “Having an abortion” is in there, as well. While there are also plenty of other categories that we might rightfully classify as not OK — “harming someone,” for instance, and “cheating at work or school,” and “committing an illegal act” — a lot of the secrets contained within the 38 categories may result directly from a culture that has somewhat arbitrarily deemed them taboo, even when there’s nothing at all wrong about them. I’m curious whether shame plays a role in why we keep these kinds of secrets — and curious about whether further studying secrecy might ultimately help break down these harmful stigmas.
But maybe that’s a subject for another day — and another study.