Research recently published in Personal Relationships provides new insight into how the experience of keeping a secret is impacted by a variety of interpersonal factors. The findings suggest that relationship quality plays a key role in the motivations behind keeping information hidden from another person.
“I think everyone – myself included – can relate to the difficulty of having to keep a secret from a close friend, family member, or romantic partner. However, not a lot of research has looked into how keeping a secret depends on whom you are keeping the secret from and whether the information is relevant to that person,” said study author Alisa Bedrov, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I was interested in looking at secrets from this relational perspective and seeing whether that affected the burden of keeping the secret (since anecdotally, most people can also probably agree that some people are easier to keep secrets from than others, depending on how close they are or what the information is.)”
In the study, 292 undergraduate students and 249 adults recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk answered a series of questions about a personal secret that they were trying to hide from another person. Most of participants reported that they were keeping their secret from a current romantic partner, parent, or friend. The researchers found that perceptions of relationship quality were associated with motivations for keeping the information a secret from the target person.
Those who had a higher quality relationship with the target person tended to be more concerned that their secret would make it harder to maintain close relations or cause the other person distress. In addition, participants with a higher quality relationship tended to be less concerned with privacy and negative reactions.
Overall, keeping the secret was seen as creating a slight amount of distance between the secret-keeper and the target person. But among participants in high quality relationships, keeping the secret was seen as having a positive impact on the level of closeness, which “may reflect the secret’s protective function,” the researchers explained.
Those with a higher quality relationship also tended to be less concerned that revealing their secret would result in negative relationship outcomes, but only in the Mechanical Turk sample. “Our undergraduate sample may have perceived less social support from other people in general — or from the targets from whom they hid secrets — leading them to expect the target to react more negatively even if they had a high-quality relationship,” the researchers said.
Similarly, in the sample recruited from Mechanical Turk, the relevance of the secret to the target person was associated with the reported difficulty in keeping the information hidden. It was also related to personal and relationship consequences. But these associations were not observed in the undergraduate sample.
“The major takeaway is that the experience of keeping a secret is affected by 1) the quality of the relationship with the person you’re keeping the secret from and 2) how relevant the information is to that person,” Bedrov told PsyPost.
“We found that secrets were less detrimental to the relationship when the secret-keeper and target had a high-quality relationship and that the motivation for keeping the secret was often to avoid harming the relationship. We also found that (in some samples) keeping a secret that was directly relevant to the target was more difficult and effortful to conceal and had a more negative impact on the secret-keeper’s well-being and their relationship.”
In line with previous research, Bedrov and her colleague also found that secrets that were difficult to conceal, frequently thought about, and accompanied by negative emotions were more likely to be associated with reduced levels of well-being. But as with any study, the new research includes some limitations.
“This study relied solely on self-reports from the secret-keeper’s perspective, so we only have a one-sided view of how keeping a secret affects relationships. This study was also correlational, and not all effects replicated between our two samples, so we cannot make causal claims and need more research to see which of the effects replicate in other samples,” Bedrov explained.
“Open questions include how the burden of keeping a secret differs depending on the type of secret that is being kept (your own personal secret vs. someone else’s secret) and assessing the target’s reactions to secrecy, including parsing out whether negative reactions to revealing a secret are about the information itself or the act of concealment.”
“Given how prevalent secrecy is in everyday life and its potential to negatively impact both personal and relationship well-being, more research should really focus on secrecy as a social phenomenon and consider the social context in which it occurs, beyond just the individual secret-keeper,” Bedrov added.
The study, “What you don’t know might hurt me: Keeping secrets in interpersonal relationships“, was authored by Alisa Bedrov and Mark R. Leary.