Why Secret Documents Like the JFK Files Are So Irresistible

Kennedy Dallas Car
John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the U.S., and his wife Jackie Kennedy traveling in the presidential motorcade in Dallas before his assassination. Keystone/Getty Images

The U.S. government was scheduled to declassify thousands of documents about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Thursday.

However, about 300 were held back. In a memo, President Donald Trump said that departments and agencies suggested that some documents should be redacted because of "national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns."

Those documents will be released on April 26, 2018—or the government can choose to postpone it again, according to the memo.

JFK Files are being carefully released. In the end there will be great transparency. It is my hope to get just about everything to public!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2017

Many of the replies to Trump's tweets on the JFK files referenced yet another set of documents shrouded in secret—Trump's tax returns.

Why do we care so much about secret documents? Columbia Business School professor Michael Slepian has built his career on the science and psychology of secrets, and shared his expertise with Newsweek on Friday.

What kind of effect does the word "classified" have on us?
I don't think there's research on this question, but I would suspect that as soon as something is labeled secret or something is labeled classified—as soon as there is a special subset that will get access to that information—that information does probably sound juicier or more valuable, which will make people more curious to learn it.

Why are we compelled to share, tell or keep secrets?
I think people have this default tendency to share information. The reason for that is that it's the only way that we can connect with other people and the only way to understand another person and to get to know another person. But sometimes, when there's something that happens that you fear that if other people were to know that information, it could damage your reputation or damage your relationships or hurt other people.

In my research, I find secrecy is incredibly common. At this moment, the average person has 13 secrets, five of which that they've never told a single person about. And so what makes secrecy so hard is going against this normal tendency to share information with others.

Is there any evolutionary explanation for our interest in secrets?
We do see secret information as something of value, something that we might trade or protect, the way we protect our resources from other people who we wouldn't want to share them with. We protect information the same way. We do see secret information as something of value, something to distribute carefully.

National Archives building JFK Files
The U.S. National Archives building is shown on October 26 in Washington, D.C. The National Archives released thousands of classified files on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Does releasing information actually convince people there's no conspiracy—that all the secrets have been told—or does it just give them more fodder for more theories?
I'm not aware of any research that has touched on that, but I do think that if people feel like something has been finally released, I would suspect that will give them a feeling of resolution—like something has been resolved. Kind of at the heart of all of these effects we see is that secrets make people feel uncomfortable. If there's a secret that you still don't have access to, that's going to be on your mind because it's still this unresolved issue. I think if people felt like that secret was finally told and got that feeling of resolution, though, it might make people feel like, "Okay, now I know the story."