Keeping a secret can be hard work. It may seem relatively easy to avoid mentioning your friend’s surprise birthday party or your co-worker’s recent breakup, but concealing even trivial information, let alone important things, can be exhausting. When keeping a secret, we have to constantly monitor what we say to make sure that we don’t accidentally spill the beans. This monitoring process turns out to be mentally taxing and—according to a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General—the added strain can be enough to markedly impair people’s cognitive abilities, their self-control, and even their physical strength. (For more about the long-term psychological toll of keeping secrets, see the related Nautilus article, “Secrets That Won’t Rest.”)
In a series of studies that explore the costs of secret-keeping, Clayton Critcher of UC Berkeley and Melissa Ferguson of Cornell University repeatedly find the same pattern of results. People asked to spend time in conversation without revealing a secret—for example, concealing their sexual orientation—perform worse on an array of tasks. The new research builds on previous work by Julie Lane and Daniel Wegner, as well as by Jamie Pennebaker, which finds that keeping secrets can be cognitively demanding.
In one study, heterosexual participants engaged in conversations in which they were not supposed to reveal that they were straight. Saying, “I like to watch movies with my boyfriend (or girlfriend),” would be off-limits; participants would have to reword it in a way that concealed their sexual orientation. (Critcher and Ferguson say they find the same results when using homosexual participants, but this study was not included in the article.) After only 10 minutes of keeping their sexual identity a secret, participants performed worse on a test that required complex thinking than did participants who were not asked to conceal anything.
The extra work of watching what you say puts a strain not only on cognitive abilities, but on self-control as well. After 10 minutes of keeping a secret, people could not hold a hand grip as long as those who hadn’t been hiding anything. They also became worse at interpersonal self-control: When asked to respond to an obnoxious email, they wrote angrier, more impolite replies.
Watching what you say can be taxing even if the subject that you’re worried about never comes up. As Critcher explains, “it was the monitoring that taxed people’s abilities, not having to alter what they said if the taboo subject came up. There’s a subtle strain involved in constantly having to focus on not saying the wrong thing.”
The findings have important implications for any context in which people feel they need to conceal their identity in order to succeed. When Critcher and Ferguson began their research, the United States military allowed gay men and women to serve, but only so long as their sexual orientation remained undisclosed. After signing the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in 2011, President Barack Obama explained that he thought the new law would “bring us closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans” and also “enhance our national security [and] increase our military readiness,” by keeping dedicated and effective servicemembers in their jobs.
Critcher and Ferguson’s research suggests an additional benefit to allowing gay members of the military to serve openly: that those servicemen and women would better serve their country when freed from the burden of keeping their identity secret.
Dave Nussbaum is a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Chicago. His social psychology blog, Random Assignment, is hosted at BigThink.com and, he’s on twitter as @davenuss79.