Do You Enjoy Keeping Secrets?

Can I tell you a secret? Do you promise not to tell?

How often have you heard or spoken those words?

What was the last big secret you knew? Was it your own or someone else’s? How hard was it to not blurt it out?

In “The Quiet Thrill of Keeping a Secret,” Catherine Pearson writes about new research suggesting that keeping good news to yourself can be energizing:

If your partner gets down on one knee to propose, or you get a call with the job offer you’ve been coveting, your inclination might be to shout it from the rooftops. But new research suggests that keeping positive secrets to yourself can have an “energizing” effect.

The study, published in the November issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, included five experiments with a total of 2,800 participants between the ages of 18 and 78.

In one experiment, participants were given a list of 38 types of positive personal news, like a new romance, an upcoming trip or being in a position to pay down some debt. On average, people reported they were experiencing about 15 things on that list, five to six of which they hadn’t told anyone about.

Participants were then randomly assigned to reflect on an experience they had talked about with others or one they were currently keeping secret. Those who reflected on secret good news reported they felt much more “energized” than those who reflected on good news they had already shared.

“It’s not energy in the sense of, you know, ‘I just drank coffee,’” said Michael Slepian, an associate professor of business at Columbia University, the author of “The Secret Life of Secrets” and a lead researcher on the study. Instead, he described it as a kind of “psychological energy,” more like the feeling you get when you are deeply engaged in something.

Ms. Pearson writes that “not all secrets a created equal”:

Many people hold on to secrets because they fear the negative consequences of sharing them, Dr. Wismeijer and Dr. Slepian said, and the harm seems to come from ruminating on them.

Negative secrets — like a lie you are concealing or a time when you violated someone’s trust — tend to deplete us, Dr. Slepian said. In a prior study, he found that people who were preoccupied with an important secret judged hills to be steeper and believed physical tasks required more effort, as if the secret were weighing them down and zapping their energy. Negative secrets have also been linked to anxiety and relationship problems.

Positive secrets, however, don’t seem to have this effect. Rather, people seem enlivened by them. One factor could be that people often have different motivations for keeping good news to themselves.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • Do you enjoy keeping secrets? Have you ever experienced what Ms. Pearson describes as a “quiet thrill”?

  • How good are you at keeping a secret? Have you ever revealed someone else’s confidential news? Conversely, has anyone ever disclosed information you had told them in confidence?

  • Ms. Pearson distinguishes between two kinds of secrets: positive and negative. The latter, such as lies you are concealing, tend to deplete you, she writes, whereas positive secrets, like a new romance or job offer, seem to enliven the secret holder. How do those concepts resonate with your own experiences of keeping secrets?

  • What advice would you give to someone who has a hard time keeping secrets?

  • After reading the article, do you think you are more likely to savor good news and keep positive secrets to yourself?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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