Why Secrets Are Hard to Keep, for Trump and the Rest of Us, According to One Psychologist

As many world leaders and everyday gossip-lovers will attest, keeping secrets is hard. President Trump reportedly shared classified intelligence with top Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting. His decision to do so has, national security experts and the general public alarmed by this potential threat to the security of the United States.The president defended himself by tweeting that he shared "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline safety” with the Russians for ‘humanitarian’ reasons.

The impertinent disclosure raises a crucial question: Why are secrets so troublesome for us? Here, Columbia Business School professor Michael Slepian, who researches secrecy, discloses the details on why keeping privileged information to ourselves is so difficult.

How did you begin researching secrecy?
My training is in social psychology. I began researching secrecy in graduate school because I was interested in understanding how people think about it. I noticed that people describe secrets as something that is burdensome. A secret can be “weighty.” We carry them around. We describe them as something equivalent to physical heaviness.

My initial studies looked at why people think about secrets this way. It turns out that when people think about a significant secret, they act as if they are carrying a weight. They see the world around them as more challenging.

If you are carrying a weight and facing a hill you need to climb, the hill appears steep. Climbing that hill takes a great deal of work if you’re physically encumbered. Distances seem farther, and the effort to traverse those distances is greater. My early studies on secrecy found the same effects. People felt challenged and burdened by their secrets, and it seemed to take more work for them to engage in the world around them.

At that time I was doing this work, the literature included no research on secrecy. So we began with some very basic questions to unravel the experience. Keeping secrets is so common; everyone has this experience in life. We knew that secrecy had consequences on our health and well being, but we didn’t know why.

What consequences does secrecy have on our health?  
Keeping secrets is correlated with greater stress, anxiety, depression and physical health complaints.

That was the big question for us after our initial findings. We approached this question by trying to understand how people experience secrecy. People assumed that secrecy was harmful because it’s hard to conceal them during social interactions. Hiding things is difficult and stressful, and leads to negative health outcomes—that was the original thinking.

But our research revealed something else. The experience of secrecy is much more concentrated in thinking about the secret. In general, life doesn’t give us that many opportunities to actively hide our secrets. We aren’t being asked directly about whatever secret we are holding onto. Once in a while there may be a moment of discomfort when you have to resist sharing information, but then you move on.

05_16_trumprussia_04 A combination of file photos shows Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attending a news conference in Moscow, Russia, November 18, 2015, and U.S. President Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, May 17, 2016. Reuters

By comparison, we spend much more time simply thinking about the secret, whatever it is. And the more you think about the secret, the more diminished your well-being. So it’s not the act of keeping the secret that’s harmful; it’s the amount of time that the secret is on our mind that matters.

Do the health consequences depend on the kind of secret?
Yes. The more significant the secret, the more harmful it is to our health.

Why do people tell secrets?
My research indicates that sharing secrets doesn’t result from a lapse in the effort to hide it. Rather, if a secret is on your mind often, then there’s a natural transition to speaking about it with another person. What is hard about secrecy is having the secret on your mind, not having to hide it. So if it’s on your mind, then you might mention it even if you didn’t mean to.

Do people share secrets because of the status it bestows?
Absolutely, although research has not addressed this question directly. The work on secrecy indicates that people sometimes disclose information to try to become closer to someone. Research on dominance displays indicates that someone might disclose information to demonstrate status, because the disclosure signals that the person has access to information that only high-status individuals would have.

What are dominance displays?
We tend to not like ambiguity. So in a situation with an ambiguous balance of power, especially if someone senses that the hierarchy is unstable, they may attempt to take the position of higher power. Doing so would require some demonstration, whether they are seeking power during a single meeting or in a relationship or other circumstance. When the power ranking is unclear, people are more likely to display dominance or send a signal of status.

Would disclosing privileged information qualify as a dominance display?
Yes. Signaling access to information is not just about status, but also power. Status is being respected by others, and power is having control over resources or information or people. Controlling information that others don’t have is a source of power.

Why is access to information a sign of power? Could we think about that dynamic in evolutionary terms, that access is somehow tied to survival?
Yes. In ancient times, power depended on controlling resources that other people wanted, such as food. Today society is more complex, and our resources include money, social capital and information. In the past, success often depended on controlling resources that could be traded for other valuable items. Today, information works the same way. If you have valuable information, you demonstrate this resource to show you have power. Signaling access to secrets shows others your status.

Have you seen the burden of secrecy be the undoing of people in leadership positions?
The research literature on whistleblowers contains many such examples, and the heart of the matter lies with the difference between ends and means, or outcomes and process.

When leaders are focused on the process—how they are reaching a particular outcome—those who are being led often feel a greater sense of fairness. They feel more included and more motivated. By contrast, focusing on the outcomes rather than the process tends to lead to unhelpful leadership styles. In a business context, the outcome could be beating the competition or increasing profits. Targeting that outcome with no attention to the process of reaching it can undermine motivation among the people being led.

The connection to secrecy here lies in the risk you pose as a leader to those you are leading. If you disclose information as a signal of status, then that may achieve the desired outcome but at the expense of a process that ensures safety and inclusion of others.

This dynamic also sounds like the difference between short-term and long-term gains.
Yes. Taking the harder road that will lead to a better outcome is the long game. The short-term advantage of asserting dominance and displaying status—showing others the information you have access to, for example—may not be helpful in the long term.

What else are you hoping to learn about secrecy?
Our research invites a fundamental change in how we think about secrecy: that what is difficult about secrets isn’t hiding them but thinking about them. So do different kinds of secrets hurt more to think about? Do we let slip some secrets and not others because of how much we think about them? What are the consequences of disclosing different secrets on our performance in the workplace, our health, our well being? We need to examine not only the moments when people are actively hiding secrets but also the moments when people are thinking about those secrets to answer these questions.  

Join the Discussion