Spill the Beans

Some see the ability to keep secrets as a virtue, but a series of studies suggests there’s a hidden downside for the confidant.

H. R. Haldeman’s job as White House Chief of Staff to President Richard Nixon required a great deal of discretion. A close confidant and “gatekeeper” to Nixon, throughout his tenure Haldeman kept a daily diary brimming with all the state secrets he was entrusted with.

Around January 1973, his entries took on an anxious tone: "We had some discussion about Watergate, and I filled him in on all the coverage in the paper on that today, and the fact that it's building up,” he wrote. "He feels that our people should take the Fifth Amendment rather than getting trapped into testifying.”

The scandal he describes would eventually land Haldeman in prison for 18 months for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Perhaps diaries like these were the “friends-only” Facebook feeds of their day. Some people decry the epidemic of over-sharing on social media, but according to new research, gushing out information might not be as bad as keeping it all in.

The Columbia University professor Michael Slepian has found that secrets can literally weigh people down. In one of his studies, he asked gay men to help him move some boxes of books. Those who said they weren’t out of the closet opted to move fewer boxes. In another experiment, he found that people who were troubled by the fact that they had recently had an affair thought of everyday tasks, like carrying groceries upstairs or walking a dog, as more physically burdensome.

In 2015, Slepian decided to see whether it mattered how distracting the secrets were. He determined how preoccupied his study participants were by asking questions such as, “How much do you think about your secret?”, “How much does it affect you?”, and “How much does it bother you?” The participants then were asked to judge the slant of a picture of a hill. The more consumed by their secrets the subjects felt, the steeper they thought the hill was.

“The more preoccupied people were with their secrets, the more effort they thought was required to keep their secrets, and so other things seemed more challenging,” Slepian told me recently. “The more challenged you feel … you judge the environment as more extreme.”

This phenomenon resembles grudge-holding, which has a similarly onerous effect. In a series of studies, participants who were asked to think about a time when they forgave a wrongdoer jumped much higher and perceived a hill as less steep than a control group.

Slepian suggests this all might mean that holding on to information can feel like shouldering a heavy physical load—and can sometimes become detrimental to health. “Without others to discuss the secret with, one only has the option to internally ruminate upon [it],” he writes. Indeed, HIV-positive individuals who concealed their status from others—and who were preoccupied with this secrecy—have been found to be at greater risk of anxiety and depression.

Slepian says the key element is the preoccupation: People who are happy to keep their lips sealed likely don’t feel encumbered in this way. “You can only do so much at one time. If you're devoting a lot of resources toward your secret, you'll feel you have have less resources for other tasks,” he told me.

So what to do if someone approaches you with a juicy—and weighty—piece of gossip?

In 2014, Slepian and some colleagues performed another study for which they asked people to reveal their secrets anonymously over the Internet. Once again, thinking about the secrets led to increased judgments of hill steepness. But those who had a secret and shared it had guesses that were no different from the non-secretive group.

Of course, revealing secrets can also be socially costly. In cases where you can’t spill the beans to a neutral third party or mental-health professional, Slepian suggests “expressive writing” as a way to get it off your chest.

It seemed to have worked for Haldeman. In later years, he seemingly bounced back, became vice president of a real-estate development company, and, as his obit describes, “let his hair grow and took on an altogether softer image.”