Resistance to Divulging Dark Secrets is Mostly Misplaced

overblown secrecy

People frequently conceal negative facts about themselves from others, both inside and outside of the workplace, out of fear that they would be negatively judged. But new research from the McCombs School of Business suggests that those worries are exaggerated.

In fact, when study participants overcame their fear to reveal a secret, those to whom they confided were far more charitable than they expected.

“When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message. But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and vulnerability,

said co-author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs.

Not-so Great Expections

In his paper, co-authored with Michael Kardas of Oklahoma State University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, Kumar highlights several key takeaways from the 12 experiments.

Scientists asked a few groups to picture themselves disclosing a bad secret and to guess what other people would think of them. Next, they requested that each participant share the secret with that individual, and they collected the replies from the receivers.

Every time, the actual judgment was more positive than the projected judgment. People were driven to reveal or conceal based on how they thought others would evaluate them.

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

Kumar said. However, disclosure had the opposite effect in the tests. More higher than the revealers had anticipated, recipients rated the revealers’ sincerity and reliability.

Across Magnitudes

Participants divulged secrets to strangers, acquaintances, close friends, family members, and romantic partners—all with similar results.

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

Kumar said.

The individuals disclosed a great deal of negative information, ranging from acknowledging they had never ridden a bike to admitting to adultery. They hypothesized that worse verdicts would result from more significant secrets.

Even for darker secrets, they overestimated the impact.

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

Kumar said.

Honesty Counts

In one study, participants were informed by researchers of their findings: people tend to overestimate the detrimental effects of disclosures. The news made the participants feel more willing to be transparent.

Only 56% of participants admitted to telling a lie when challenged. However, when participants were assured they would most likely not be punished harshly, 92% chose to confess their lies.

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

said Kumar.

Although none of the experiments were conducted in business settings, Kumar believes the lessons can be applied there.

Any comprehensive understanding of how to navigate the workplace includes a better understanding of how people think, feel, and behave. 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,”

he concluded.

  1. Kardas, M., Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2023). Let it go: How exaggerating the reputational costs of revealing negative information encourages secrecy in relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000441