One of the interesting things about secrets is that we share them, expecting the people we share them with to not share them further—and then those people do share them further.
So the first question we need to ask is, Why do people share secrets? If they're things we don't want people to know, why do we share them? We don’t share all secrets, but what sharing secrets represents is a tradeoff: a tradeoff between social acceptance and the desire to keep our less-than-holy behavior private.
When we behave badly, we feel negatively about it. We are embarrassed, we feel bad—we feel shame, we feel guilty. So we don’t want anyone to know what we’ve done, but at the same time, at some level, we want to be forgiven. We want to be told that this is actually okay, that it's not too bad, that other people behave this way as well. And we can't get this social recognition that this behavior is actually okay, that it's not that bad, if we don't share it with anybody.
Often people think we share to unload a burden. But the reality is that we share secrets because we want to be told that we’re actually okay, that this behavior that we’re embarrassed about or think badly about is actually not that bad.
So secrets are things that we’re embarrassed about that cause us not to want to share them with other people, but they also make us feel bad, which makes us want to share them with people—as long as those people will then tell us that our behavior was actually okay. The tradeoff comes when we trade secrecy for the hope of reassurance. That’s the first seeming mystery of secrets: why we share them to start with.
The second question is, Those other people we tell the secrets to, why do they betray our confidence and share them further? They actually do that to advance their status in a social hierarchy.
Imagine that we have three people: person A, person B, and person C.
Person A tells a secret to person B, asking them to keep it a secret. Then person B tells it to person C. In that act of violating the promise—saying, “Hey, I have a secret that person A told me, and I promised him not to tell, but I'm telling you”—in that action of revealing a secret, person B is actually saying something to person C. “I know something about person A,” he is saying. “But you, person C, are more important to me than person A, so I'm willing to violate their trust in order for you to get that piece of information.”
We tell secrets for two reasons. First, we tell our personal secrets because we crave reassurance, and in the pursuit of reassurance we share shameful secrets and trust our friends. But second, in the pursuit of improved standing in the social hierarchy, the recipients of our secrets sometimes, maybe too often, betray us.
So the two mysteries of secrets —why we tell them from the beginning, and why the people with whom we share them share them further on—I hope are slightly more clear.
And now let me tell you a secret. You know what? Maybe not.
Ariely Ph.D.’98 is the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics, and the founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke.