When people talk about carrying a secret, they describe it as if they are actually physically carrying something of tangible substance. Secrets are referred to as burdensome, and when they are revealed, people often say they feel as if a weight has been lifted. Although it has been evidenced that secrets can lead to emotional stress and depletion of cognitive properties, it is unclear whether the “weight” people attribute to secrets can impact physical tasks. Michael L. Slepian of the Department of Psychology at Tufts University in Massachusetts conducted a series of experiments designed to evaluate how people perceived the weight of a secret.
In the experiments, Slepian asked participants who were carrying a secret to determine the slope of a hill and the distance of a designated physical task. He then measured whether the frequency of thinking about a secret would affect the perceived physical effort needed to complete a task. Lastly, Slepian gauged whether harboring a secret would impede an individual’s willingness to help another person with a physical activity. The results revealed that across all four experiments, participants’ perceptions were “weighed down” by their secrets.
In the first experiment, the participants judged the hill as being steeper than it was, suggesting they felt physically weighed down by their secret. They also viewed the distance as being longer, rather than shorter, as would be the case if they were merely cognitively overloaded. This finding implies that carrying a burdensome secret affects perception of physical weight as it is related to physical tasks, and not just cognitive appraisals. In the final two experiments, the more frequent the secret thoughts, the more physical exertion participants thought they would need and the less willing they were to offer help to someone else. The findings of this study demonstrate the deleterious effects of carrying a secret, above and beyond the emotional and physical health risks. Slepian believes that individuals who harbor deep secrets such as trauma and abuse are vulnerable to stress arising from perceived challenges across many life events. “In sum, important meaningful secrets, including those regarding infidelity and sexual orientation, affected individuals across numerous domains, as if they were physically burdened,” Slepian said.
Slepian, Michael L., E.J. Masicampo, Negin R. Toosi, and Nalini Ambadi. The physical burdens of secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141.4 (2012): 619-24. Print.
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