Why people say things they later regret

Summary: You are more likely to disclose personal information you would rather keep concealed when you are most awake and alert.

Source: University of Melbourne

People are more likely to disclose information that they are usually careful about concealing when they are more awake and alert, according to a new University of Melbourne study.

Dr Brent Coker from the Faculty of Business and Economics, who co-authored a new research paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, says that arousal – the degree to which someone is awake and alert – causes people to say things automatically rather than think things through before speaking. Dr Coker said automatic responses are usually things that people would try to conceal from others, and may cause regret.

“Ironically, the times when we’re most awake and alert are also the times when we have to be very careful about what we say – like job interviews, media engagements, important work meetings, or even romantic encounters,” Dr Coker said.

The research paper outlines three of eight experiments conducted by Dr Coker and co-author Professor Ann L. McGill from the University of Chicago.

The first study asked participants to write a dating profile and found that ‘aroused’ people disclosed more embarrassing, emotional, intimate, and incriminating information about themselves than those who were relatively relaxed. A follow-up study on the same data found that the aroused participants’ profiles were less attractive for dating than those of the more relaxed participants, suggesting that disclosing too much information also negatively affects people’s attractiveness.

The second study looked at online trolling behaviour and how likely people are to reveal instances when they said mean or malicious things to others online. The study found that people are more likely to disclose information one would not normally disclose when they are aroused.

The third study found that people are more likely to disclose highly personal information after physical exercise.

“Saying the wrong thing in the wrong moment may create awkwardness, be offensive, damage trust, or harm perceptions towards our character. Politicians and CEOs seem to do it all the time. We really need to make an extra effort to control what comes out of our mouths during times of stress – which might explain why so many people have arguments over Christmas,” Dr Coker said.

This shows two people covering their mouths
When someone is awake or alert they can disclose more embarrassing, emotional, intimate, and incriminating information than people who are relatively relaxed. The image is credited to University of Melbourne.

According to Dr Coker, the secret to increasing the accuracy of what we say is to try to adopt daily strategies to reduce stress, since stress is related to arousal.

“Consciously controlling your breathing and listening to chilled music are two strategies known to work. Then there are the more traditional strategies such as reducing how much coffee you drink, getting enough sleep and eating well.

“As any interrogator will tell you, there are limits to how much stress someone will take before they ‘spill the beans’. Our research suggests that it actually doesn’t take very much stress at all before people will say something they might later regret.”

About this neuroscience research article

University of Melbourne
Media Contacts:
Sam Burt – University of Melbourne
Image Source:
The image is credited to University of Melbourne.

Original Research: Closed access
“Arousal increases self-disclosure”. Brent Coker, Ann L. McGill.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103928.


Arousal increases self-disclosure

This research tests the hypothesis that arousal increases self-disclosure. We find that affective arousal increases the amount (study 1) and the severity (study 2) of self-disclosure, and that self-disclosure is also increased by physiological arousal (study 3). We further explore the moderating effect of thought frequency on the arousal-disclosure relationship, finding that often-thought-about thoughts are more likely to be disclosed than less thought-about thoughts. This research has practical importance in terms of understanding when and why people self-disclose personal information, and enriches our understanding of the theoretical relationship between arousal and information sharing.

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