The Upside of Sharing Secrets

Secrets are bad. It’s a mantra every ten-year-old learns (and then obsessively repeats to the cool kids in an effort to discover who has a crush on who.) But there’s truth to it. Scientists believe that keeping secrets can lead to more stress and increased negative affect. The problem is that because trust and privacy are important for not making people hate you, revealing everything to everybody isn’t a great option either. What’s a kid to do?

According to a group of Dutch psychologists the answer starts with rejecting the secret/no secret dichotomy. They propose something called a “shared secret,” a piece of information that somebody reveals to a limited number of people. It turns out that although secrets are bad, research suggests shared secrets can be beneficial:

Having a shared secret next to a private secret seemed to dampen the association between keeping the private secret and depressive mood. When comparing secrets kept private and shared secrets directly, a similar pattern of results emerged: Adolescents with a shared secret were better adjusted than those with a private secret.

Our results concerning the role of the confidant are in line with our hypothesis that sharing secrets serves important interpersonal functions. When a secret was shared with parents or a best friend, the quality of that particular relationship was higher.

It’s hard to know which way the causality runs — perhaps being emotionally stable makes you more likely to have somebody to share a secret with rather than the other way around — but either way it speaks to the importance of having somebody to confide in during adolescence.

One thing that’s unfortunate about the fact that our school choice debate focuses exclusively on competition is that we don’t acknowledge that choice is a good thing on its own. For example, having more than one school option raises the number of other kids a student might interact with and thus it raise the chances they’ll have somebody with whom they can share a secret.

There are a number of other reasons why a school that’s perfectly acceptable may not be a good fit for a particular student. There may be too much (or too little) group work or technology. The cafeteria food may not sit will with their digestive system. The locker room may not have enough privacy. Being a kid is hard, and any number of tiny things can poison a student’s school experience. It would be progress if people put aside ideology long enough to acknowledge that regardless of the labels we place on schools, options are good.
Frijns, T., Finkenauer, C., & Keijsers, L. (2012). Shared secrets versus secrets kept private are linked to better adolescent adjustment Journal of Adolescence DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.09.005


2 Responses to The Upside of Sharing Secrets

  1. Meaghan Hill says:

    Maybe sharing a secret for kids is just a lesson of operant conditioning. When they keep the secret to themselves, they get more stressed out and can’t handle the pressure of being the only one carrying that knowledge. They’re too young to know what to do with it. But when they tell the secret to a trusted adult perhaps, they are most likely to receive positive reinforcement, not only from the parents which strengthens their relationship, but from themselves. The parents reward them for knowing to come to an adult. They feel better that they aren’t the only one with that special knowledge and can get help from the other party. This creates a repeitition of sharing and trusting another indiviual with their sacred information, lifting the stress off their shoulders while still being true to their friend with the secret and increases the probability that this response will occur again.

  2. Amber S. says:

    My psychology 101 textbook discusses operant conditioning. During operant conditioning, people (and animals) learn to repeat or avoid an action based on the consequences of that action. In the case of telling secrets, kids can learn through operant conditioning whether they should share secrets or not.

    Operant conditioning involves punishment and reinforcement. Punishment leads to a decrease in likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. As the article notes, “trust and privacy are important for not making people hate you.” If a child was to tell his or her best friend’s secret to everyone at school, they would likely receive some sort of punishment. It could be punishment by application, or positive punishment, such as the friend becoming angry and berating the kid who told their secret. There could also be punishment by removal, or negative punishment, if telling the secret resulted in the loss of the friend.

    On the other hand, children can receive reinforcement for sharing a secret with certain people under certain circumstances. Reinforcement, which increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated, can come in two forms— negative or positive. As the article notes, “Scientists believe that keeping secrets can lead to more stress and increased negative affect.” Secret sharing can be negatively reinforced by allowing a person to avoid stress. A person might also receive positive reinforcement for sharing a secret, such as support from friends and family or strengthening of the relationship between the friend or family member and the secret-sharer.

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