A Survey of Our Secret Lives

By Neuroskeptic | May 21, 2017 6:55 am

What kinds of secrets does the average person keep? In a new paper, Columbia University researchers Michael L. Slepian and colleagues carried out a survey of secrets.

Slepian et al. developed a ‘Common Secrets Questionnaire’ (CSQ) and gave it to 600 participants recruited anonymously online. Participants were asked whether they’d ever had various secrets, at any point in their lives. The results are a monument to all our sins:

slepian_secretsIt turns out that extra-relational thoughts – meaning “thoughts about having relations with another person while already in a relationship” – top the list of secrets. One third of people report having such thoughts and never telling anyone. Another 20% say that they kept such thoughts a secret from some people.

Other leading secrets included “sexual behavior” and “romantic desire”. One third of participants reported having had a secret of “no sex”, meaning that at some point in their lives they kept their lack of sex confidential.

To check whether the results would replicate in a real-life sample, Slepian et al. gave the questionnaire to 200 people picnicking New York’s Central Park. This group was mainly composed of tourists, from diverse different countries. The results were similar to the online study, although the Central Park group were more likely to have kept things secret only from certain people, rather than from everyone:

slepian_parkSlepian et al. went on to study various psychological correlates of secret-keeping. The authors conclude that secrets exert an emotional burden, not because of actual acts of concealment, but because of our tendency to mentally dwell on these hidden truths:

People catch themselves spontaneously thinking about their secrets – they mindwander to them – far more frequently than they encounter social situations that require active concealment of those secrets. Moreover, independent of concealment frequency, the frequency of mindwandering to secrets predicts lower well-being.

Edit: You too can complete the ‘Common Secrets Questionnaire’ at Slepian et al.’s website, keepingsecrets.org

ResearchBlogging.orgSlepian, M., Chun, J., & Mason, M. (2017). The Experience of Secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000085

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, select, selfreport, Top Posts
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  • Phil Wilson

    Seems a fairly tame list of secrets.

    • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

      Hardly surprising- it would take an act of positively incandescent Idiocy to admit anything REALLY bad to some random researcher!

      • OWilson

        The science of the “survey” and “polling” has a long way to go before being taken seriously.

        • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

          The science of the surveys and polling – that we hear about – seem to have a long way to go. It would seem that either the people who do these these things are not utilizing the high tech tools available or, perhaps, they are just lazy.

          • okiejoe

            It may be too difficult to be completely anonymous utilizing high tech, nothing like an uncoded sheet of paper arriving in the mail.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        “incandescent Idiocy” Psychology illuminating the world in shades of brown.

      • temporary guest


      • Kate K

        Study after study shows vieled or indirect questions are more accurate than direct questions on confidential matters. We have long seen this with reporting of non heterosexual thoughts or activity.
        EG of the problem not taking this into account, direct questioning on gun ownership show 25 year decline, veiled questions show a 25 year increase.

        • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

          Which explains why I don’t respond to surveys; You don’t know who is ultimately going to what with that information and why.
          Russian Proverb I have grown rather fond of over the years- “It is good to trust; it is better to not need to.”

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    extra-relational thougths “never experienced” 33%, 200/600
    ambition “never experienced” 33%, 200/600
    surprise “never experienced” 25%, 150/600
    work cheating “never experienced” 50%, 300/600
    drug use “never experienced” 50%, 300/600

    Jute bag of road apples, turd biscuits, and “psychological correlates.”

    the frequency of mindwandering to secrets predicts lower well-being.” Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering.

    • Maia

      The results you highlight all seem unbelievable. (A big surprise to me that one quarter claim they have never experienced surprise! )

      • OWilson

        In polls there is often a preamble:,. “Many people are surprised each day by perfectly normal events”

        Question No. !

        How often are you surprised during a typical day?

        (The framing of a question, and it’s context can influence greatly the outcome, often referred to as “push polling”)

        That’s why political polling is a PR racket, you get what you pay for!

        The MSM have been breathlessly pushing the polling in Montana and Georgia byelections as “referendums on Trump”.

        They appear to be shocked and surprised that the “deplorables” outside of the Washington Swamp, don’t share their views (again) :)

        • Kate K

          I very much agree with this.
          And it is not just political polling.

      • sweatpants

        ~40% claim to have never experienced “no sex”

  • Dragon Girl

    I’m suprised that illness (in general) isn’t on the list.

    • Kate K

      There are many things not on the list. There is also complexity in things that have social benefit in concealing — i for good reason.
      EG gun ownership, where viewed questions (likely the most accurate_ indicate 58% to 63% of Americans own guns, while direct phone questions garner about 43%, and face to face zero anonymity garner about 33%. Older firearm training was usually hunting or military based and these were public non confidential uses. new firearm is training much more oriented toward home defense and the training strongly and repeatedly emphasizes never telling anyone other than immediate family that you have a firearm in the home as it increases risk of targeted burglary theft or other unauthorized access.

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  • http://stephenlaudig.com/ SteveLaudig

    one is left wondering whether ‘psychology’ can only be accepted as a ‘science of individual small groups’ the group being polled and even then not ‘much’ of a science….

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  • Marion Meads

    My mom knows everything! She’s better than the CIA. So I only use google when she’s not around.

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  • https://www.quicktapsurvey.com QuickTapSurvey

    Interesting people are much more willing to voice job dissatisfaction over social dissatisfaction.

  • Mariam Hayrapetyan

    Of course, all of know about the fact that everything which should not be done is sweeter. I think that if we consider the same questionnaire on Armenian society, not many things will be changed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should ruin his or her family and follow his or her own priorities. This survey is pointing out the fact that we are not open till the end with our relatives or family. According to survey, about 20% percent didn’t share their thoughts at all. And if we imagine other secrets, for example, if a teenager having psychological problems because of school bullying doesn’t tell someone about his or her problem and moreover wants to commit suicide without sharing the problems, it’s become awful. And from the charts, it is visible that personal problems are in the second place. So, it is not always bad to share secrets, sometimes it may save your life or make it better.



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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