People keep secrets for all the wrong reasons, study explains

AUSTIN, Texas — While most people have heard the saying “honesty is the best policy” before, pretty much everyone still harbors a secret or two. There are certain truths people keep to themselves, largely out of fear of being judged unfairly by others. Now, surprising new research explains that people should all be more open with each other. Why? Researchers found that when participants pushed through their fear to reveal a secret, the people they chose to confide in turned out to be significantly more charitable and understanding than anticipated.

In other words, revealing a secret about yourself rarely garners the types of negative reactions that people initially imagine. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Chicago conducted a series of 12 experiments to reach these findings.

“When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message,” says study co-author Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at Texas McCombs, in a media release. “But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and vulnerability.”

Man telling a woman a secret
(© DDRockstar –

The research team’s approach led to a number of noteworthy insights:

Too-Low Expectations: Study authors asked participants to imagine revealing a negative secret and then predict how another person might judge them. Then, each volunteer had to reveal the secret to that person in real life. Sure enough, the expected judgment was consistently worse than the actual judgment.

Miscalibrated Expectations: People were motivated to reveal or conceal based entirely on how they believed others would judge them.

“If we believe other people will think we’re less trustworthy, that can really impact our decision to conceal information,” Prof. Kumar notes.

During the experiments, though, disclosure actually appeared to have the opposite effect. Participants rated the revealers’ honesty and trustworthiness much higher than the revealers expected.

Across Relationships: Participants divulged secrets to many different cohorts, including strangers, acquaintances, close friends, family members, and romantic partners. Still, the results remained similar regardless of who heard the secret.

“Their expectations were slightly more accurate for close others, but they were still systematically miscalibrated, even for the closest people in their lives,” Prof. Kumar explains.

Dark vs. Light Secrets: Participants revealed a wide range of negative information, from admitting they had never learned to ride a bike to confessing infidelity. Understandably, people predicted that more serious secrets would likely generate worse judgments. However, even for darker secrets, listeners didn’t react as badly as most anticipated.

“The magnitude of what you’re revealing can impact people’s evaluations, but it also impacts your expectations of those evaluations,” Prof. Kumar notes.

Honesty Feels Good: During one experiment, researchers told participants what they had learned, which is people tend to overestimate the negative impact of revelations. That news shifted many participants’ attitudes toward more honesty.

After being challenged to confess that they had told a lie, only 56 percent of participants did so. However, among the other group, in which volunteers were told they would probably not be judged harshly, 92 percent chose to reveal their lies.

“There’s a psychological burden associated with secrecy,” Prof. Kumar comments. “If we can alter people’s expectations to make them more in line with reality, they might be more transparent in their relationships.”

Building Trust with Co-workers: Although none of the experiments took place in business settings, study authors believe these findings could apply there as well.

“Any comprehensive understanding of how to navigate the workplace includes a better understanding of how people think, feel, and behave,” Prof. Kumar explains. “When workplace transgressions arise, people could be wise to consider that they also reveal warmth, trust, and honesty when they are open and transparent about revealing negative information.”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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