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'Did you hear what he did?' Why people divulge other people's secrets


Illustration of a mouth whispering next to an ear.
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February 23, 2022

Secrets — those dastardly details you confide in another person that come back to haunt you — are a social phenomenon among humans. Some would say it’s part of our social fabric, to talk about others, to gossip, to divulge another person’s deepest secret.

But when, and maybe more importantly, why, would someone divulge another person’s secret to others?

According to a new study by researchers at Arizona State University and Columbia University, the divulging of a secret has a direct correlation to a person’s morals. It seems that when someone learns another person’s secret that breaks their own moral code, the person who was confided in is willing to divulge that secret to “punish” the secret holder, according to Jessica Salerno, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at ASU.

“Keeping things about ourselves secret is burdensome and has a negative impact on our relationships and our health,” Salerno said. “Confiding in others is important, but we assume that the people we confide in have similar motivations to keep the information quiet as we do to protect us and prevent us from being punished for that secret behavior. Yet, our discovery is that it’s not just that people often don’t keep our secrets, but they may be inclined to actively reveal the secret to see us punished when they think the secret behavior is immoral.”

The research, which is based on a series of nine studies that asks participants how often they decide it is appropriate to reveal someone else’s secrets and what their motivations were behind those decisions, is published in the early online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In “Morality, Punishment and Revealing Other People’s Secrets,” Salerno and her co-author, Michael Slepian of Columbia University, found a consistent trend in how often secrets were divulged and some of the motivations as to why they were divulged.

“Across a wide variety of commonly kept secrets — ranging from being unhappy at work to sexual infidelity — people revealed other people’s secrets 30% of the time on average,” Salerno said. “When we specified that we only wanted to know about secrets that were directly confided in our participants by someone close to them, we expected this percentage to drop a lot, but it didn’t; people still revealed 26% of other people’s secrets that had been directly confided in them.

“This means that the majority of secrets were kept, but a meaningful percentage, that some might consider horrifying when they consider their own confided secrets, were revealed to at least one other person."

As to why people divulged other’s secrets, Salerno said, morality played a key role.

“Across many studies and situations, people were significantly more likely to reveal someone else’s secret if they considered the secret to be an immoral behavior,” she explained. “And we found out why: People are more likely to reveal other people’s secrets that they think are immoral because it satisfies a (perhaps unconscious) emotional need to see that person punished for the morally outraging secret behavior.”

Crime and punishment

In fact, the role of punishment is a key in the divulging of a secret. If the person who was confided in thinks the person who holds the secret has already been punished, then they are less motivated to divulge the secret. Remove the punishment, however, and then people are more motivated to divulge the secret to fulfill that need to see them punished, Salerno said.

This motivation to reveal information as punishment appears to be limited to the realm of secret information.

“We found that when the information was a confided secret, people’s decisions to reveal it or not were driven by their motivation to punish the person,” she said. “But when the same information was presented as not being a secret, people’s decisions to reveal it or not was not driven by their motivation to punish the person, but instead by their desire to gossip about it.

“So, this phenomenon of being more likely to reveal someone else’s immoral behavior to punish them is something specific to secrets — if the information is public, it is driven more by a desire to gossip."

Choose your confidants wisely

So why even confide in another person if you know your secret could be damaging?

While people generally keep their own misdeeds quiet to avoid punishment and reputational damage, Salerno said confiding in someone provides a relief to the secret holder.

“Keeping secrets leads to social isolation, stress, damage to relationships and health problems,” she explained. “People might reveal the secret to others to avoid these negative consequences, or also to feel close to the confidant, ask advice, or to receive social support. Being able to confide secret — including those that are immoral — is important for people’s relationships and mental health, which is why it is important to know how to choose those confidants wisely.”

Top illustration by Alex Cabrera/ASU Visual Communications

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