NOV 13, 2023 6:00 AM PST

Energizing Secrets: The Hidden Component of Positive Secret-Keeping

WRITTEN BY: Amielle Moreno

A beautifully wrapped gift brims with possibilities. The secret of its contents hidden just behind a thin, shimmering veil of paper. All you want to do is tell your friend what treat you're about to bestow, but you keep quiet with an impatient energy.

The desire to share good news is a universal human experience. Research has explored the weight of exhaustion and the heavy cognitive load that comes with keeping truths to ourselves. However, while lying and negative secret-keeping is an active area of neuroscience and psychology research, we know little about the effects of positive secrets.

A recent study by Slepian and colleagues from Columbia University Business School and the University of Michigan's Psychological Sciences Department suggests that secret-keeping might not inherently burden the secret keeper. Instead, pleasurable psychological effects may be due to the meaning individuals attach to their secrets.

Motivations for sharing information can be classified into two categories: intrinsic, driven by internal forces, desires, and values; and extrinsic, fueled by the desire for rewards, avoidance of punishment, or the need to maintain someone's confidence. The study posits that the motivating factors influence the psychological toll of secret-keeping.

To decipher the complexities of secret-keeping, researchers gauged participants' feelings of energization, likened to aliveness, vigor, and readiness. This energy was distinct from feelings of happiness and joy. In fact, the experiments accounted for participants' positive affect on that day, affirming that the secret's energizing potency was not solely a result of their positive mood. Participants were then asked to imagine various scenarios involving secrets and non-secrets and different motivations. After these imagined experiences, they rated their energy levels on a scale.

As one might expect, the study found that contemplating a secret of good news, akin to the excitement of planning a surprise party, led to a greater energization than ruminating on non-secret good news. Furthermore, intending to share the secret enhanced this energizing effect.

Prior research has identified measurable activity changes in the striatum, a brain region associated with positive mood, when individuals remember positive experiences. But it's not just the positive memories around the secret that are responsible for the energizing effects.

What was surprising was that when the motivation to keep the secret was intrinsic, aligning with a person's values, positive secret-keeping was more energizing than if it was motivated extrinsically or for no reason. Results consistently showed that intrinsic motivation played a significant role in the energizing effects of positive secrets. Positive secrets were also more likely to be intrinsically motivated than neutral or negative secrets.

Interview with the Author Slepian

In exploring secrets' various motivations and qualities, this study challenges the conventional wisdom that secret keeping is always mentally fatiguing. While acknowledging the potential exhaustion tied to certain types of secrets, the authors suggest that “the meaning that people attach to the secret may guide its psychological effects,” said Slepian et al.

This nuanced understanding of the interplay between motivation, mental fatigue, and secret-keeping opens avenues for future explorations into the diverse effects of different types of secrets on our cognitive well-being. Areas of the brain outside of the striatum likely play an active role in this energizing effect. Withholding information involves the executive function of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Starting with the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, future in fMRI studies can closely explore the distinctive neural correlates of this fascinating human experience.

Sources: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Neuron, NeuroImage,

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Amielle Moreno earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Emory University and has dedicated her career to science communication, news coverage, and academic writing/editing. She is a published researcher who has branched out to author articles for various science websites. She recently published an original research article detailing her findings on how sensory areas of the brain respond to social sound. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her spinning the latest neuroscience news into comedy gold, hosting her podcast "Miss Behavior Journal Club." This fortnightly humorous podcast features the latest in behavioral research. Her goal in life is to defend and discover scientific truths.
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