This shows a big face and a lot of people.
In fact, when study participants pushed through fear to reveal a secret, those in whom they confided were significantly more charitable than they expected. Credit: Neuroscience News

Revealing Secrets: People’s Fear of Judgment is Overestimated

Summary: New research dispels fears of judgment when sharing secrets. Study shows that when individuals confide their secrets, others perceive them as more charitable and trustworthy. Participants consistently expected harsher judgments than they received, regardless of the relationship with the confidant. The study highlights the psychological burden of secrecy and the potential for increased transparency in relationships.

Key Facts:

  1. People tend to overestimate the negative judgment they’ll receive when revealing secrets.
  2. The fear of judgment influences decisions to disclose or conceal information.
  3. Disclosure often leads to others perceiving the revealer as more honest and trustworthy.

Source: UT Austin

In and out of the workplace, people often keep adverse information about themselves secret because they worry that others will judge them harshly. But those fears are overblown, according to new research from the McCombs School of Business.

In fact, when study participants pushed through fear to reveal a secret, those in whom they confided were significantly more charitable than they expected.

“When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message,” said study co-author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at Texas McCombs. “But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and vulnerability.”

Kumar cites several key takeaways from the 12 experiments in his paper, co-authored with Michael Kardas of Oklahoma State University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago.

Too-Low Expectations. Researchers asked several groups to imagine revealing a negative secret and to predict how another person would judge them. Then they asked each participant to reveal the secret to that person, and they gathered the recipients’ responses. The expected judgment was consistently worse than the actual judgment.

Miscalibrated Expectations. People were driven to reveal or conceal based on how they thought others would evaluate them. “If we believe other people will think we’re less trustworthy, that can really impact our decision to conceal information,” Kumar says.

In the experiments, though, disclosure had the opposite effect. Recipients rated the revealers’ honesty and trustworthiness more highly than the revealers expected.

Across Relationships. Participants divulged secrets to strangers, acquaintances, close friends, family members, and romantic partners — all with similar results. Says Kumar, “Their expectations were slightly more accurate for close others, but they were still systematically miscalibrated, even for the closest people in their lives.”

Dark vs. Light Secrets. The participants revealed a wide range of negative information, from admitting they had never learned to ride a bike to confessing infidelity. They predicted that more serious secrets would generate worse judgments.

But even for darker secrets, they still overestimated the impact. “The magnitude of what you’re revealing can impact people’s evaluations, but it also impacts your expectations of those evaluations,” Kumar says.

Honesty Feels Good. In one study, researchers told participants what they had learned: that people overestimate the negative impact of revelations. The news shifted participants’ attitudes toward more openness.

When challenged to confess that they had told a lie, only 56% of participants did. But in another group, where participants were told they would probably not be judged harshly, 92% chose to reveal their lies.

“There’s a psychological burden associated with secrecy,” says Kumar. “If we can alter people’s expectations to make them more in line with reality, they might be more transparent in their relationships.”

Building Trust With Co-workers. Although none of the experiments were run in business settings, Kumar says the lessons can be applied there.

“Any comprehensive understanding of how to navigate the workplace includes a better understanding of how people think, feel, and behave,” he says. “When workplace transgressions arise, people could be wise to consider that they also reveal warmth, trust, and honesty when they are open and transparent about revealing negative information.”

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Judie Kinonen
Source: UT Austin
Contact: Judie Kinonen – UT Austin
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Let it go: How exaggerating the reputational costs of revealing negative information encourages secrecy in relationships” by Amit Kumar et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Let it go: How exaggerating the reputational costs of revealing negative information encourages secrecy in relationships

Keeping negative interpersonal secrets can diminish well-being, yet people nevertheless keep negative information secret from friends, family, and loved ones to protect their own reputations.

Twelve experiments suggest these reputational concerns are systematically miscalibrated, creating a misplaced barrier to honesty in relationships.

In hypothetical scenarios (Experiments 1, S1, and S2), laboratory experiments (Experiments 2 and 6), and field settings (Experiments 3 and 4), those who imagined revealing, or who actually revealed, negative information they were keeping secret expected to be judged significantly more harshly than recipients expected to judge, or actually judged, them.

We theorized that revealers’ pessimistic expectations stem not only from the cognitive accessibility of negative information (Experiment S3) but also from a perspective gap such that the negative outcomes of disclosing this information, compared to positive outcomes, are more accessible for prospective revealers than for recipients.

Consistent with this mechanism, revealers’ expectations were better calibrated when directed to focus on positive thoughts or when they considered revealing positive information (Experiments 5, 6, and S4). Revealers’ miscalibrated expectations matter because they can guide decisions about whether to reveal information or conceal it as a secret (Experiment S5).

As predicted, calibrating revealers’ expectations increased their willingness to reveal negative information to others (Experiment 7), suggesting that miscalibrated fears of others’ judgment create a misplaced barrier to honesty in relationships.

Overestimating the reputational costs of disclosing negative information might leave people carrying a heavier burden of secrecy than would be optimal for their own well-being.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.