Michael Slepian is fascinated by the secrets people keep – and how keeping secrets affects us.

He first studied the burdens of secrets. In his 2012 study, he found, “People who recalled, were preoccupied with, or suppressed an important secret estimated hills to be steeper, perceived distances to be farther, indicated that physical tasks would require more effort, and were less likely to help others with physical tasks. The more burdensome the secret and the more thought devoted to it, the more perception and action were influenced in a manner similar to carrying physical weight. Thus, as with physical burdens, secrets weigh people down.” Source: PubMed

Now, in a new study, Slepian, a professor of management at Columbia Business School explored the experience of secrets. He and his co-researchers identified 34 categories of secrets (the research identified 38 broad types) including addiction, self-harm, lies, finances, hating friends (while pretending not to), theft, and more.

They explore how the “diversity of secrets people have and the harmful effects of spontaneously thinking about those secrets in both recall tasks and in longitudinal designs, analyzing more than 13,000 secrets across our participant samples, with outcomes for relationship satisfaction, authenticity, well-being, and physical health.”

One of their discoveries is that it is possible to study secrecy by simply having people think about their secrets, the idea being to help people cope with burdensome secrets by developing clinical interventions.

Slepian and his team also found that when the mind wanders to uncomfortable or burdensome secrets, people exhibit measurably-lower levels of well-being. Remember, secrets are perceived by those who carry them as physical burdens.

Another revelation of the study: On average, people have about 13 secrets they are keeping, five of which they have never shared with anyone at all. The study focused on specific types of secrets being concealed including:

extra-relationship thoughts
sexual orientation
pregnant
marriage proposal
drug use
employment
belief/ideology
illegal
self-harm
work discontent
surprise
sexual infidelity
counternormative
poor work performance
habit/addiction
hidden relationship
mental health
trauma
preference
other woman/man
hobby
work cheating
no sex
personal story
other-harm
romantic discontent
social discontent
physical discontent
finances
family detail
ambition
emotional infidelity
theft
violate trust
romantic desire
lie
sexual behavior
abortion

One take-away we noticed is that for all the efforts made in the past two decades to de-stigmatize certain behaviors, feelings, illnesses, etc., people still keep them secret. It seems to imply that perhaps there is an inherent or perceived immorality about categories that no amount of activism (or social engineering) can completely change.

(Obviously, stigma does not refer to secrets such as an upcoming, pleasant surprise or a marriage proposal.)

When first reading about this fascinating study, we assumed that secrets were something “other people” had. Now, we’re not so sure. Because part of prayer in our tradition is confession directly to God, as well as acting on specific religious directives to correct wrongs, the burden of a painful secret seems to be lessened.

But what if you feel you have no one to tell? How heavy is that burden?

How many secrets are each of us keeping? Which ones are on the list, above? Does your mind wander to them and do they cause you distress? Can you share them and get advice on how to deal with the pain they cause you (and others)?