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People keep secrets for the wrong reasons, surprising study finds

[Jan. 13, 2024: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

In the intricate web of human relationships, secrets often play a significant role. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In the intricate web of human relationships, secrets often play a significant role. Whether it's a hidden personal flaw or a concealed mistake at work, individuals frequently keep adverse information hidden, fearing the harsh judgments of others.

However, groundbreaking research conducted by the McCombs School of Business challenges these apprehensions, suggesting that people's fears of judgment may be largely unfounded.


The study, led by Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at Texas McCombs, sheds light on a fascinating aspect of human psychology. Kumar explains, "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."

The research, co-authored by Michael Kardas of Oklahoma State University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, involved 12 experiments exploring the dynamics of secret-sharing and its impact on judgment.


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One remarkable finding from the study is that people consistently underestimate how charitable others will be when they reveal a secret. Participants in the experiments initially predicted that disclosing negative information would result in harsh judgment, but the actual responses they received were significantly more forgiving than expected.

The study also revealed a fascinating aspect of human behavior known as "miscalibrated expectations." People tend to decide whether to reveal or conceal information based on their assumptions about how others will evaluate them.


Kumar notes, "If we believe other people will think we're less trustworthy, that can really impact our decision to conceal information." However, the experiments consistently showed that disclosure led to higher ratings of honesty and trustworthiness from the recipients.

Interestingly, the research found that these patterns held true across various types of relationships, from strangers to close friends and romantic partners. Kumar emphasizes, "Their expectations were slightly more accurate for close others, but they were still systematically miscalibrated, even for the closest people in their lives."


Furthermore, the study challenged the assumption that more serious secrets would lead to harsher judgments. Participants who revealed even the darkest secrets still overestimated the negative impact of their disclosures. Kumar explains, "The magnitude of what you're revealing can impact people's evaluations, but it also impacts your expectations of those evaluations."

Participants who revealed even the darkest secrets still overestimated the negative impact of their disclosures. (CREDIT: American Psychological Association)

One intriguing aspect of the study was its potential to encourage greater honesty and transparency. When participants were informed that they had previously overestimated the negative impact of revealing secrets, their attitudes shifted toward more openness. In a separate experiment, where participants were assured that they would not be judged harshly, a staggering 92% chose to reveal their lies compared to only 56% in the control group.


A key takeaway from the research is its applicability to the workplace. Although the experiments were not conducted in business settings, Kumar suggests that the findings can be applied to enhance workplace dynamics.

Participants who imagined revealing, or who actually revealed, negative information they were keeping secret expected to be judged significantly more harshly than recipients expected to judge, or actually judged, them. (CREDIT: American Psychological Association)

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


Ultimately, these findings suggest that greater openness in both personal and professional relationships may lead to stronger bonds and increased trust among individuals.

For more green news stories check out our Green Impact section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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