Why is it so hard for some of us to keep things confidential? Psychologists suggest it has to do with our personality and what we’ve learned from our parents.
The world is full of secrets. They range from the fascinating (who is the Mona Lisa?), to the dangerous (what is North Korea planning?) to the quirky (what are KFC’s famous 11 herbs and spices?). But often when secrets emerge, they can have a damaging domino effect (just ask Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton or author James Frey).
So just what makes a person privy to telling or not? Some people spill classified information just as easy as a glass of water, while others remain so tight-lipped even torturers would be hard-pressed to pry other their mouths.
Psychologist Victoria Kasunic offers three main reasons why individuals forgo the hush-hush. “Firstly, some people are naturally more open than others and tend to share their thoughts and feelings,” she explains. “So it’s got less to do about the secret itself than the person’s personality.” And so long as the content doesn’t cross professional or personal boundaries, there’s not much harm.
In contrast, others can’t deal with the pressure confidential information affords them, so are eager to offload it – especially if it’s to do with guilt. “Like if they’ve done something wrong and think telling the other person will take it off their chest,” says Kasunic. In reality though, this can backfire. “If you’ve done something hurtful, it doesn’t necessarily serve the person involved to know.”
Lastly, some people get off on a power trip by some sharing other people’s business. “But often these people don’t like other people talking about them,” continues Kasunic. “So it’s almost a way for them to detract attention from their own business, which is kept tightly under wraps. Essentially it’s about insecurity.”
Consumer psychology consultant and author Glennys Marsdon agrees. “Some people use secrets as a form of social validation. Knowing something others don’t helps boost self-esteem,” she says. Not to mention the attention this person selfishly receives upon sharing someone else’s dirty laundry.
Interestingly, our secret-keeping (or sharing) habits can be traced back to our parents and their own tendencies, be it whispering behind an open palm or maintaining a staunch silence. “It is very much learned behaviour, especially if you have parents who don’t talk about their feelings or worry people knowing certain things will bring shame upon the family,” offers Kasunic. “When you’re younger you pick up cues about being allowed to share information; it’s implicit learning.”
This is most apparent when we talk about people keeping mum about their own issues. Unlike sharing information passed onto you, revealing personal secrets is exactly that – much more personal for fear of feeling ashamed or self-conscious. “The risk of being judged keeps people quiet,” continues Kasunic. “But sharing secrets can be incredibly freeing. It allows people to support you and for shame and concern to be replaced by help and healing.”
The cathartic effect of revealing personal demons is the driving force behind the hit website PostSecret. Founded in 2005 by Frank Warren, people anonymously mail in their secrets on a homemade postcard which Warren then posts online. Entries range from admissions of sexual misconduct to confessions of secret desires to the sharing of innermost hopes and dreams. Warren, who visited Australia in April, receives some 200 “secrets” every single day.
Marsdon (who attended one of Warren’s events) said she found the sheer number of secrets revealed worldwide staggering. “It was fascinating and heart-warming to hear the commonality of the secrets across genders, socio-economic groups and geographical regions, how similar we all are.” In other words, being more open is generally a good thing.
But she also warns that if you’re thinking of doing a big unveil to just think about it first. “People need to be certain they have been through the long term implications of revealing a secret, not just the immediate short term relief it might bring for them.”