Psychology of Secrecy

How do secrets affect the mind? One of the tactics most people use to keep a secret is to try not to think about it--particularly in the presence of those from whom the secret must be kept. The last thing we want to do, after all, is to let the secret somehow into our words or gestures, so we try to put it out of mind whenever it might be a problem. This thought suppression strategy can backfire, however, making us think of the secret again and again. Our seeming obsession with the secret can then take on a life of its own as we become preoccupied with the secret and come to exaggerate its importance in our minds. Lane and Wegner (1995) revealed these consequences of secrecy for thinking, and Wegner, Lane, and Dimitri (1994) found similar consequences for emotion. People who keep love affairs secret become obsessed with them and become more attracted to their partners than they might if their relationships were public. In the Victorian era, secrets were even identified as a source of madness. Moritz Benedikt (1879) described the "pathogenic secret" as a thought that becomes the obsessive and frightening focus of a person's whole mind and life simply because of its secrecy.

 
Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin. German translation by Ernst Kabel Verlag, 1992. 1994 Edition, New York: Guilford Press. 
Wegner, D. M., & Pennebaker, J. W. (Eds.) (1993). Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 
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  • Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). The hidden costs of hidden stigma. In T. F. Heatherton, R. E. Kleck,  M. R. Hebl, & J. G. Hull (Eds.), The social psychology of stigma (pp. 220-242). New York: Guilford Press.

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