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This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you're the parent of a small child. It's not uncommon to have an experience like this. Your kid comes home from preschool and says the butterfly flew away. You go, what butterfly and your child looks at you puzzled, she doesn't realize that the butterfly she saw at preschool when you were not around is not a butterfly you know anything about.
In the minds of very small children, there is no sharp line between what they know and what others know, but at some point early in childhood, all of us made a magical discovery. Our thoughts belong only to us parents, siblings, teachers. No one can enter our minds and see what we are thinking. A second discovery followed shortly afterward, if no one can see what is happening inside our minds, we can hide things from other people. We can keep secrets.
So the pain of keeping this secret has been one of the biggest challenges I've had to deal with in my adult life.
I do think constantly about it, and I can't tell anybody about it now because I'm afraid of what might happen and it's affected my overall well-being. This week on Hidden Brain, How Secrets Tether US to our past and sometimes keep us from stepping into the future. So often the secrets that we keep start out as something small. We make tiny edits to our personal narratives, we skip over little details about where we come from, what we've done and who we know, we hide pieces of ourselves that produce shame or anxiety.
But over time, the weight of even small secrets can become burdensome. Lauren Leduc knows exactly how this works. She's in her early 20s and works in a pharmacy.
But I'm also a fiancee, a daughter, a sibling, an older sibling to seven and also a student. And in my master's trying to get into medical school.
At the moment, Lauren, secret has to do with religion. She was raised Catholic when she was a teenager. She turned away from Catholicism, but she didn't want to give up on religion altogether.
I just didn't know what to believe in, but I knew that I was still believing in God.
She started to explore other faiths, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism. She sought out people from different religious traditions and peppered them with questions.
For example, I would try and find someone in high school or on my campus that was a practicing Buddhist and just ask questions about that religion.
One of her religious consultants was a boy named Hamza.
I was on student council. He was on like the media production team and we were actually playing a kickball game and he scored a home run and sophomore me was like, oh, that's the coolest guy ever.
Humza, in addition to being the coolest guy ever was Muslim, it was nice to have someone who was actually faithfully a part of their religion, whose family practiced it, who he seemed to really enjoy it.
Hamza and Lauren began dating some months later, eventually as she spoke with him and other practicing Muslims about what it meant to be a person of faith. Lauren decided that Islam was the right fit for her. In her senior year of high school, she converted. This was when her dilemma began. She didn't want people to assume that Hamza was the reason she had embraced Islam, where they think I did it for a boy. So she decided to fudge one tiny detail.
Whenever I meet people and they ask about this, I ultimately end up emphasizing the point, yes, I converted before I met him.
But that's not how it happened, was the other way around, I met my boyfriend and then I converted. I see the conversion is not the secret, but the timing of the conversion. You're actually in some ways, you're predicting when you actually converted because of your concerns about how people will perceive you. Yes, exactly.
If people thought Lauren had converted to please her boyfriend, she worried they might make other assumptions about her. She just does whatever she's told. She's gullible. She doesn't have her own set of values or her own thinking. And she just did this for a boy. She's a hopeless romantic. So for anyone to identify me with those traits, it would just be so hurtful to my self-esteem, to my confidence. Lauren saw herself as motivated, strong, decisive, and when it came to religion, she knew her choices were entirely her own.
How I view religion is just it's just me and God, it shouldn't involve anyone else, it should just be a one on one relationship. At first, the little lie made everything easier. She didn't have to explain to people that she would have made the same choice, whether or not she was with Humza.
Just don't tell them. Tell them a short synopsis, make it easy and to the point easy and to the point.
That was the hope. But like many secrets, this one slowly took on a life of its own. After high school, Lauren got a job as a pharmacy technician. When I talked to her, she had been working at the pharmacy for more than four years.
The altered timeline for her religious conversion was the story she shared with colleagues. But as time passed, the little lie became harder to manage.
Somebody was talking about me and Honza and the timeline of like how we met. And I was like, oh, crap, what did I tell them? I need to make sure that my story is correct because I told them maybe a year ago. One story I know. So I'm like having to keep track of like what I'm saying. And that's something that I do fear that I told somebody something maybe a year ago about our relationship and they catch me on it.
Soon, there was another complication. Hamza, you just flat out tells people that this is whenever we started dating and then I converted and then we got engaged, so he doesn't mind, he's not afraid of people. So he just tells them the exact story, which is also kind of scary for me because I'm like, oh, my gosh, what if one of your people comes to me and then, you know, and like, Hamza, stop, we have to go with my story.
And he's like people probably already know and like they don't know because I'm telling them this.
And you're telling them that Lawrence worries started to spill into her life. There were nights she couldn't sleep, as you try to remember all the angles, what she'd said to whom, what Hamzah may have said, how people might cross-reference the stories and discover the truth, and then her worst fears were realized.
We know this one couple, a husband and wife, and I guess he told the husband and the husband told the wife. And then the wife was asking me one day. Oh, yeah. How did you all get together and tell me your story? And she's one of the less conservative people that I know. And she's also a Muslim. But I was telling her the shortened version and she's like, you know, my husband told me something different.
The other woman was understanding she assumed Lauren had made up the story in order not to offend conservative relatives who didn't know when Lauren and Humza started dating. But increasingly, Lauren found a mental gymnastics of keeping her secret exhausting.
She also started to feel bad about misleading people. She felt really bad about deceiving one particular co-worker who had become a friend.
She's amazing. Every time they come to the pharmacy now, she's like, Hey, bestie. And we really bonded because we both have dogs and our love for dogs, which is really awesome.
Mm hmm. But but but it's interesting that I'm wondering how this person at the pharmacy would feel if she knew that you had lied to her about something trivial. How do you think that she would take that?
So part of my anxiety right now that I'm actively having is what will people think whenever they hear this? Will they think that I've been lying to them or I haven't been a faithful friend or coworker? How will they react? Right.
I mean, in your case, I think the lie is sort of a relatively trivial thing. But I can see how in life there are people who put on rolls and put on acts and basically, you know, live those those roles and acts not for, you know, months and weeks, but for years, for decades. And then, you know, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years on, they've essentially feel like they've lived an inauthentic life.
Yes. So that is something that I want to avoid one of those key words there in authentic life. So I'm still young and I consider myself young. I'm 22, so I definitely want to just get this behind me and be OK and open with accepting who I actually am and my actual timeline in life and stop fabricating this timeline, because that's one step closer to just becoming me. Lauren, in not keeping this lie and being afraid of the timeline that I've had in life, I think it'll even bring me even closer to my religion if I'm just super accepting of why I converted when I converted in, how I did it.
Lauren's secret started out small, but it gradually took up more and more mental space. It left her feeling isolated from people who mattered to her. And that, it turns out, is the rub when it comes to secrets.
When we come back, we speak with a researcher who studies secrets and ask him to analyze Lauren's story. He also explains what psychological studies reveal about the consequences of secret keeping.
It's not for having to hide a secret. It's having to live with it alone. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Stay with us. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Michael Slepian is a psychologist at Columbia Business School.
He studies secrets across a number of research studies. He finds that holding on to secrets has profound effects on our well-being, but not for the reason most of us think. Michael Slepian, welcome to Hindbrain. It's good to be here when most of us think of keeping secrets, Michael, or the challenge of keeping secrets.
What do we think about when you think about a secret, sort of what people tend to imagine is one person sitting in a room with another person and you're talking about something related to the secret. And the person with the secret has to carefully dodge questions and, you know, make sure to not reveal the wrong information. And, you know, that certainly happens sometimes. But it turns out we don't actually have to hide our secrets very frequently. And it also turns out to be not the reason why they hurt us.
I'm thinking, actually, of the scene from the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Masel, which I think encapsulates the conventional way most of us think of secrets. One of the characters whose name is Rose is trying to find out information about her son, Noah. He he has a top secret job at a at a top secret agency. And Rose is trying to get her daughter in law, Astrid, to spill the beans.
So you call his university, the company or any other place. He works for the company that has lied and lied. Why does he keep in touch when he's away? He or she can? I do. If he's we need to reach him. Are you able to really what would you do in an emergency? I don't know. I could just dial the operator and say, can be the CIA. It doesn't work that way. Of course not.
And Michael, of course, this is what we think when we think about keeping secrets, the moment of trying to hide something from someone and feeling flustered as they as they fish it out of us.
Yeah. And so if that was all that was harmful about secrecy, that would actually be quite good, because we're not often in these conversations. But unfortunately, even when we're not talking to someone about something related to the secret, we have all the time in the world to simply think about that secret and for our mind to return to that secret again and again. And this is where the real harm of secrecy seems to seep in, not moments when you have to hide the secret, but once when you find yourself just having to think about it.
And you find this in a number of studies that that no one is usually behaving like the nosy mom. No one's asking us to reveal our secret because, of course, they don't even know that we have a secret. Yeah.
You know, you could think about sort of a common secret, for example, as, say, infidelity. That's not a thing we go around asking our friends and family about. Hey, have you ever cheated on your partner? It just doesn't work that way.
So if concealing the truth from prying eyes is not what makes secret keeping hard or keeping secrets hard, what have you found is the real psychological costs of keeping secrets?
So when you're keeping a secret, what you're not doing is you're not letting people in on something that probably really matters to you, otherwise if you didn't care about it, you might feel free to talk about it. When you choose to be alone with something, you're often worse off for it. If it's something you need help with now, you're not getting the help you need. If it's something you need emotional support for. Now, you're not getting that either.
So we're missing out on a lot of things when we're keeping a secret. And if you're only have a secret to yourself, well, you only have yourself to figure it out and you're going to find yourself turning that secret over and over in your mind and potentially ruminating on it. And that's where we see the harm. It's not having to hide a secret. It's having to live with it alone.
Did you hear any of that in Lauren's story, Michael? Yeah, and this is what's so interesting about secrecy. I think we think about these sort of specific kinds of secrets, you know, infidelity or cheating or something involving our relationships or finances. And, you know, something like, say, the timeline of events may not seem like a big deal to certain people, but it's the implications that we're concerned about. And, you know, again, like, you know, I didn't get the sense that people were pushing her to to reveal that her timeline on those details of her story.
But still, it was something that really mattered her. And clearly it was something that was on her mind quite frequently.
One of the things that was striking to me that I thought spoke to the work that you've done is how much what was happening was happening inside her own mind. In other words, I'm not even sure this actually is a secret that mattered very much to other people or would have the reputational concerns that she thought it was going to have. So much of the secret keeping, the effect of secret keeping, the psychological consequences. All of that was happening inside Lauren's head.
Exactly. And that's what we see in our own research, that a lot of it is sort of in your own head in that way. And it's taken psychology a long time to find that idea, because we were sort of focused for too long on these sort of moments of hiding that turns out to be not where the real action is in terms of when secrets actually harm us. In other words, it's not necessarily the content of a secret that damages our well-being, it's the rumination and worry about what would happen if the secret came to light that ends up being a burden.
Of course, like Lauren, most of us don't foresee all the complexities that can emerge when we keep a secret. This is partly why secret keeping is so ubiquitous. Michael found in one of his studies that we not only tend to keep a lot of secrets, we all tend to keep the same kinds of secrets. So we asked a couple of thousand people about what's the secret you're currently keeping, and we've coded those responses over and over with research assistants and eventually arrived at a set of thirty eight categories that captured the most common kinds of secrets people keep.
And when I say common, I really mean that these are the common ones, that these 38 categories really cover the ground of secrecy pretty well when we ask someone whether they have any secrets on this list. Ninety seven percent of people have at least one of the secrets on this list, and the average person has 13 of these secrets concurrently.
And what kind of what kind of secrets are these?
So you're not going to be surprised at all. It's going to be exactly the kinds of things you think people would be keeping secrets or things involving relationships, whether that's romantic discontent or infidelity or something we call extra relational thoughts as it's very common secret. You're in a relationship. You have some kind of romantic thought about another person. People tend to not talk about that.
And then things like self-harm, experiences of trauma, discontent at work, or discontent with your social life, issues around money and habits and addictions and even ambition's.
Secret keeping tends to trigger mind games. We start out by asking what other people would think of us if they knew our secret. We decide they will think less of us, which is why we decide to hide something. But soon we find ourselves asking different questions, what happens if people find out I've hidden something from them?
What will they think of me now in The Sopranos, the hit TV show about the mob, Tony Soprano does something unthinkable for a macho killer. He suffers a meltdown and goes to see a therapist. My understanding from Dr. Cusumano, your family physician, is that you collapsed, possibly a panic attack, you were unable to breathe. They said it was a panic attack because of the blood work and the neurological work came back negative and they sent me here.
You don't agree that you had a panic attack. How are you feeling now? Good, fine. Back at work. What line of work are you in? Waste management consulting.
So this is a scene that you must have thought about as you are doing your research, Michael. Absolutely.
What I really like about this example is it highlights that. A secret can be really burdensome, and it's not at all hard to hide. Tony just said waste management without difficulty. And, you know, it's not hard for him to just simply just use that as a way to cover the secret if he can just simply say a few words. And the concealment problem is super easy. And so you would think if the problem with secrecy was having concealment, that this would be a really easy secret for him.
And in fact, it's not. It's far from it.
The conceit of the of the television show is that when the mobster goes to see the psychologist at some point, this is unthinkable for a mobster to do and it would harm the mobsters reputation. And so Tony then goes to great lengths to try and preserve the secret that he's actually seeing a therapist from his fellow mobsters and it starts to affect him at some level in terms of his own perception of himself. I'm wondering if you can talk about this idea that keeping secrets at some level damages our own view of ourselves, that in some ways harms our ability to think of ourselves as being authentic people.
Yes. So when we're holding secret back from other people, we're not having these conversations about these things, you know, and this is what we can never realize. We don't talk about this secret with other people. People are generally understanding, especially the people who are close to you. You know, maybe it's going to be quite difficult to talk about the secret, but. You can and it often makes things better. We find. You've also looked at secret keeping in the context of politics, Michael, you ran an interesting experiment, I think, right after the 2016 presidential election, which was, of course, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
What was the experiment you ran and what did you find?
So we ran this study, we were thinking we had a very clear idea about who might be in our study and we were asking for people to come online and tell us about their experience, people who specifically voted for someone but told other people something else, that they voted for someone else or that they voted for no honor or whatever it was. These were people who were not being forthright about their political support and keeping it secret. We just simply ask people, who are you keeping the secret from why and what are the effects?
And these were secrets people were keeping from their friends, family and even their spouses. And we saw far more than we expected people who were saying that they were secretly supporting Trump. And when we asked people why, the number one reason was they were concerned for their reputation. They were concerned that people would think differently of them if they voiced publicly their support for Trump. And so it's interesting to think about what that means. You know, they weren't having conversations with others that maybe they should have had.
And that's sort of the secondary reason people were keeping this a secret, was not wanting to get in fights and not wanting to create arguments.
And so if that was the reason why people felt they had to keep their secret, if it was just simply to avoid getting in arguments with the people around them, that didn't seem to be very harmful. And so this is this idea, again, coming, that when you feel like it may not be easy, but you're doing it for the right thing, we see some less harm and secrecy. But when participants were especially concerned for their reputation, they found themselves having to think about the secret quite a bit.
And the more they did so, the less authentic they felt with the people around them.
Examining the intention behind a secret can be a good way to understand what and whether it will cost you to keep it hidden. It's easy, for example, to shrug off a secret designed to avoid a political tiff with a co-worker. Both you and your colleague know there are things you keep from each other to make work life go smoothly. But other secrets are not so easy to brush away. That's because these secrets reveal what you think of others, what you think they think of you.
They reveal your insecurities, your vulnerabilities. These secrets tend to produce one of the most damaging consequences to secret keeping. It's something that Michael calls mind wandering because a secret often deals with something that's important to you or ongoing because a secret often feels unresolved. Because you haven't had the conversations, you would normally have our minds return to unresolved concerns and outstanding intentions and ongoing issues frequently because those are the things that require our attention. If something needs some kind of resolution or you need to work on something, whether you like it or not, your mind is going to turn to it over and over.
And people don't often put on their calendar, OK, from 10 a.m. to 10, 30, I'm going to think about my secret pubertal plan to think about their secret, but their secret comes to mind anyway.
And so that's why we describe it as mind wandering the certain features about a secret that make it that your attention when it when it when you're not focused on a work task, when you're not focused on the thing in front of you, your mind can be drawn toward your secret. Things make you think of it, things may remind you of it, and especially when it's something that you feel not good about or you feel alone with or you feel inauthentic for.
What's that secret comes to mind? It can be hard to put it down.
And you talk at one point in your research studies about the difference between experiencing shame and experiencing guilt when it comes to secrets. I'm wondering if you can talk about that distinction, but also talk about it in the context of this mind wandering idea. Our secrets that are more tied to shame, more likely to cause our minds to return to them over and over again. Or is guilt more likely to produce mind wandering? Yeah.
So psychologists make this very important distinction between these two words. And the idea is that when you feel when you feel guilty, you feel that something you've done is wrong, you've caused some harm, your actions were wrong. So when people feel guilty, they're more likely to feel remorse and be interested in making amends. But when you feel ashamed, you don't think about how your behavior was wrong. You think about how there's something wrong with you. When people feel ashamed, they feel like they're a bad person and there's nothing.
They feel helpless and frozen and there's nothing they can do about it. And so we find that when secrets make people feel ashamed, they're much more likely to have their mind turned over. The secret over and over in the secret comes to mind much more frequently.
So when most of us think of secrets, I think the metaphor that I think jumps to mind is this metaphor of a shield. We have this vision of someone trying to pry the secret out of us and us trying to sort of hold the shield up to sort of defend ourselves or defend ourselves against someone breaking through our defenses. But but I think the picture that you're painting here is almost a different kind of metaphor, that it's really not the shield that really is motivating how we're thinking about secrets that are in our minds.
Yeah, you know, at the end of the day, people want to talk about these things and secrecy is us stopping ourselves from doing so. And so you're right.
It's not a shield. It's like a cork is the better metaphor. Perhaps we normally talk to other people to get their help. And this is an instance where we're plugging that. We're not allowing that to happen and that has all these harmful consequences. When we come back, the effects of secrets on feelings of isolation and the paradoxical effect of being the owner of secrets in the workplace. You're listening to Hidden Brain. And I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain.
I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Michael Slepian studies the effects of keeping secrets and being the holder of secrets. He finds that secrets can have pervasive effects in our lives. They make us feel less authentic, especially if our minds are constantly wandering back to the secret and wondering when we are going to reveal. Michael, you started your exploration of secrets in part because you were interested in the metaphor's. People use when they talk about secrets, you know, they talk about the burden of a secret, for example.
Talk to me about this idea that in some ways you started out looking at the role that metaphors might play and then you discovered something actually quite surprising when you conducted experiments into the.
So people have this curious way of talking about secrets, people will say that they have a heavy secret or a secret weighs them down or they have to carry a secret around with them. We'll talk about a secret almost as if it's the physical weight that they are weighed down by and have to carry with them, so our original studies were just interested in learning about that metaphor. Is that just something that just a figure of speech or does that metaphor reflect actually how we think about secrets in a more deep way?
A series of studies mickolus people to think about secrets and then ask them to judge the steepness of hills or other physical tasks, volunteers judged hills as steeper and distances as further when they were burdened with a secret. It's as if the secret had spilled into the physical world and was weighing them down. You can see this in one scene in the TV show The Office. The character Kevin successfully manages to hold on to the secret that one of his colleagues is having an affair with another colleague spouse.
I knew it the whole time. I kept a secret. I kept it secret. So guard unit breaking. No, but I know he knew. Yes, we did it. You did it, Kevin. Yeah. Oh, I did it.
What's striking to me, Michael, is the relief that we hear in Kevin's voice where he no longer has to hold on to the secret that speak exactly to what you're just talking about.
Yeah. Yeah. It feels good to to get it off our chest, but just getting it off your chest isn't enough. It's it's having a conversation about that secret, which is actually when you get the help that you need. And so, for example, revealing a secret anonymously online that does feel really good, sort of anonymously. Just put your secret out in the world. But it's not as good as talking to another person about it.
In 2019, Michael took part in a project led by the New York City based organization Subway Therapy to explore this very idea. The study involves setting up a telephone booth in Central Park. But it wasn't just any telephone booth.
It's a secret telephone. Get something off your chest. And if you picked up the receiver, you could listen to secrets people had previously shared with the phone and you could leave your own.
I gave up my killer diet because of waffles. Dating is exhausting and I'm afraid I'm going to die alone. I like to eat egg salad on the toilet. Where do I how do I hang up? So this speaks to what you just said a second ago. So in some ways, this was a this is a way for people to get the secrets off their chest, but not necessarily to have a conversation with someone about it. Yeah.
And, you know, your starting point is you haven't told a single soul and you think you'll never will. Getting it off your chest is a really great starting point because you realize this is something I can say out loud. Maybe this is something I can move forward on and maybe this is not so bad. Maybe it's not as bad as I think, but it's you're more likely to arrive at those helpful conclusions if you're in conversation with another person. So it's a great place to get started.
And hopefully it motivated people to think, oh, actually, I could talk about this with someone to you next time.
I'm wondering if part of the reason we hesitate to share secrets is that we imagine people will relate to us as if they were strangers.
But the act of sharing secrets with someone communicates to them. Look, I trust you. I trust that I'm sharing something that makes me vulnerable with you. And that act of trust in some ways transforms this person from being a stranger, someone to someone that we trust. And is it possible that in some ways we underestimate the power that sharing our secrets has on other people, on the effects that it will have on them in terms of their ability to respond well to us?
Absolutely. I think people totally underestimate that. Some people are aware of it. But I think some people miss out on this way to use our sensitive personal information that when we're feeling comfortable with someone, even if we only just met them, revealing something sensitive is a surefire way to sort of jump start that relationship or deepen that relationship. And it's a way to sort of form these social connections and deepen them.
I'm wondering if you can talk about the effect of secrets in the workplace. Many people at companies have to hold secrets. And this is especially true for executives, for managers. What effect does this have on them?
So this is an interesting situation because now it's not necessarily your choice to have kept the secret. This might be something enforced from up above. And so we find that in some ways, a secret that you have to keep on behalf of your workplace looks a lot like a personal secret in some ways, but there are some important differences to you. So the similarity is it can be isolating if there's something really significant going on in your work life that you're not allowed to tell your spouse about, that you're not even allowed to tell other co-workers about.
That's just a frustrating experience of being isolated with that information. And it's it's not easy just because, you know, normally being able to talk about work, that's that's one of the major conversation topics with other people. And not being able to have that conversation is frustrating and isolating. But there is a silver lining.
If your boss is giving you something very high level information to keep secret, you recognize that you're being trusted with really sensitive information in the personal domain that fosters feelings of intimacy in the workplace domain, that fosters feelings of status.
I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the effects the covid pandemic may have had on the way, we think and keep secrets, certainly at a minimum, people who are working from home no longer have sort of the distance from their partners and home life that they might have once had when they were working in a workplace. Do you feel like covid has meant that there are actually fewer secrets within families because people are seeing more of their partners more of the time?
You know, maybe it's it's so hard to know how this might have an effect that, you know, the way I've thought about it is at the very least, it's reduced the number of in-person interactions we have.
And I think when people think about the difficulties of concealment, they're kind of thinking about live interactions, not conversations on Zoome, conversations on Zouma, more often down to business. And there's not like chit chat, like, how was your summer? You know, we kind of get down to business a little sooner. So I think in some ways it might be easier to keep secrets from the people. Now you're no longer seeing in person. Now, could spending more time with your partner make secrecy harder or data?
Doesn't exactly suggest that whether you spend a lot of time or not much time, that doesn't seem to be what matters so much. It's, again, whether you feel alone with a secret or seem to have it or inauthentic to have it. Now, maybe when you're around your partner more and maybe you're reminded of your secret more, and in that case it might get harder. Before the pandemic, when Michael was still interacting with people face to face, he had a secret of his own that weighed on him for years.
It all started while he was talking with his colleagues at Columbia about an upcoming summer break.
So in this instance, I was telling people I'm going to be away for a week. I'm going to be unplugged and spending time with my friends in California.
Hmm. And were you, in fact, going to California?
Yes, but it was just a pit stop to continue on somewhere else. Michael, in fact, was heading to Burning Man, an annual gathering in the Nevada desert.
I think when people hear that term, they sort of imagine like a bunch of naked people out in the desert doing drugs and who knows what else, which is hardly happening for sure. You know, people hug each other even if they're strangers. And there's just a lot of sort of social connection and emphasis on creativity and sort of self expression and freedom of expression and exclusivity. But there's a lot of other things as well.
It's not quite the right word, but it's like an arts festival and sort of a massive social gathering.
It's creating an entire city from scratch that wasn't there before and totally functional city for four a week and more, and then taking it entirely away, leaving not a trace behind. And that's what I was keeping secret from my colleagues that I was participating in then. And it's striking because all the things that you just said are things that I think you would be perfectly happy saying that you subscribe to, that you are all for social connection and exclusivity and all of those things.
Why did you feel like you could not tell your colleagues where you were going?
The idea of discussing this at work, it just felt it felt like I couldn't it was somehow not appropriate or not professional. And I'm imagining like this scenario when they were like, oh, where were you naked? Did you do drugs? What did you do there? And just feeling like I can't talk about this with you.
Michael wasn't just uncomfortable that a colleague might imagine him in a not suitable for work situation.
He worried about the cascading effect of the secret getting out, sort of like imagine I tell one colleague, it's like, OK, now what happens to that information?
You know, does that spread to the next colleague and am I no longer in control over it? I think that's sort of the concern.
So when when you came back and had these conversations with people at the end of that summer, what did you tell people when they said how was your how was your unplugged vacation in California? What did you say?
It's so funny because, like, I felt so uncomfortable answering it because I don't like dancing around this thing and saying, like, oh, it was great or like it's great to be back, which actually is not what it really feels like at all, but it's just.
It's just it feels weird to try to answer a question and just to step over this huge secret in the process.
Yeah. Did you have the same feeling that Lauren did that after some time the secret felt like it was growing, that it had taken on a life of its own?
Well, there's a point at which we were like stepping over the secret, dancing around information with different people. And maybe I think I did tell one person, but I was like, oh, no, like that person will they know not to talk to this person.
And it does sort of grow into your mind. And it's like, well, what do you do?
What's so striking, of course, is that you were behaving exactly like your research subjects in your experiments whose minds kept wandering back to the thing they were trying to keep secret.
Yeah, that's entirely right. I'm trying not to lie and answering people's questions. And so the only way to do that without just saying something that's flat out untrue is to give really short responses to questions and that that is definitely a form of social distancing. Mm hmm.
And that itself might sort of prompt people to say, OK, Michael really doesn't want to talk about what happened on a summer vacation or or maybe even Michael doesn't want to be friends with me because he's giving me, you know, monosyllabic answers to my questions about what he did on a summer vacation.
Yeah, I think definitely I felt myself not connecting during the very moment of which I could have, but Michael did end up sharing his secret sort of after that thought summer at Burning Man. His wife asked him if it was OK for her to post a picture of the event on Facebook, a picture that Michael was in. And he said, sure.
And that was sort of a first step in making it not entirely secret. But, of course, as is our world today, of course, I'm like Facebook friends with colleagues. And so by letting it sort of sit there, it was opening up the possibility that this is not going to be secret any longer, although this was a circuitous way of revealing the secret.
It didn't take long for his colleagues to pick up on it. When school was back in session, all of Michael's colleagues gathered for a beginning of the year seminar everyone attends.
And so it was this full packed stadium seating lecture hall. And, you know, people are just chit chatting, you know, talking about their summer break. And I hear someone behind me say, Oh, hey, I was Burning Man.
And I had to take a moment, I was like, wait. No, this is not how I intended for this to go, for this just to be spoken out loud inside of a lecture hall.
And what did you say in that moment besides feeling like you wanted to vanish into a small hole? What did what did you say?
I think I just was like, good. It was it was certainly not something I wanted to talk about at length at that moment. And that person later I immediately understood that and said, hey, you know, sorry, I didn't mean to like about you if that's what I did.
And and at that moment, I started realizing, you know, maybe life would be easier for this to not be a secret. I thought it was the other way around. I thought life would be easier to just hold it back from people at work. But then I'm sort of doing these awkward dances around information and giving short answers to questions, and maybe that's not better.
So how did you change your behavior after that, Michael? What did you do?
So I think this conversation we're having is certainly the biggest step in that direction. I still don't go around walking up to my senior colleagues, the folks who are deciding my tenure, saying like, hey, this is this thing I just came back from. But I do probably talk about it more freely with my junior colleagues.
Now, I'm wondering, did anyone have the reaction that you either implicitly or explicitly fear? Did anyone think less of you, Michael, as a result of their learning that you went to Burning Man? I see the nature of aggression, I think you're right that the answer is no. I think you were like, that's cool. It wasn't this terrible thing that I imagined.
And I'm wondering what that reveals, because I think at one level, it might reveal, of course, that your fears were out of whack with reality, which is, of course, a useful insight for us to have. But but I'm also wondering if it revealed something else, which is that when we think about our secrets, we are often consumed and obsessed with our own lives. And our lives loom large in our own imaginations because there are, of course, our lives.
And we imagine mistakenly that other people are just as interested in our lives as we are in what happens to us. And much of the time they're not. That's perfectly correct. You know, this is the problem with having a secret that you're not talking about with other people, of course, you're going to imagine the worst case scenario. What's to stop here? Once you start talking about it from people, you realize how far away that worst case scenario is.
You know, when we when we started this episode, we talked about about Loryn and we talked about her experience and her growing concern that that now the secret that she was keeping from her friends and co-workers is actually not her biggest concern anymore. Her biggest concern was they would find out that she had kept a secret from them, a secret that in their minds was actually quite trivial. They wouldn't think less of her because of the secret. They would think less of her because she had kept a secret from them.
Yeah, I definitely understand that experience. And there's so many things that just happen when you keep a secret. You know, not only now, are you trying to figure out how to handle this information? How do you handle the fact that you've been keeping it secret for so long if you're eventually going to talk about it with someone? It's a tough one.
This was the uncomfortable position that Lauren was in when I first interviewed her many months ago. She had responded to a request we made asking listeners to share their secrets. But when I caught up with her recently, she told me she had become much more open about sharing her secret. She's found that talking plainly has not only made her life less complicated, it's made her feel better. It's like she doesn't have a lot on her shoulders anymore. We had the very same thing from many people who shared their secrets with us.
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen. It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I'm hopeful. You know, I can talk about the secret now because I realize now it's just the truth. I think at the end of the day, people just don't want to be alone, don't want to be alone with something, they don't want to be alone with this set of thoughts, because it's hard to say, OK, I'm alone with this thing and I'm not going to talk about it with other people.
I think why it feels good. I think it's it's not just that someone has heard it, but you're no longer alone with it. When he isn't at Burning Man, Michael Slepian is a psychologist at Columbia University. Michael, thank you for joining me today, Unhidden.
Thanks for having me. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media, Metromedia is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Querelle, Martin Barnes, Ryan Katz, Kristen Wong and Andrew Chadwick. Tara is our executive producer. I'm hidden branes executive editor are unsung heroes. Today are Ben and John Adair. Ben runs the L.A. based podcast production company Western Sound at the start of the pandemic. He and his team needed a solution for how to record guests while everyone was staying at home.
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I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.