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12 December 2023

The Benefits of Keeping a Secret

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

When you receive good news, what’s the first thing you want to do? Share it with someone close to you? If the answer is yes, then you are one of the vast majority (over 75%) of people who are eager to communicate their good fortune to their loved ones. 

It’s hard to keep a secret, isn’t it? How could it not be? In the field of psychology the concept of “capitalisation” means “the process in which people share positive situations that they find meaningful, and the recipient responds to this action in a way that maximises the benefit of the action.” It is considered to be one of the fundamental pillars on which friendships are built.

However, a recent study suggests that keeping positive information secret, at least for a while, is the best option: it improves the mood of the keeper of the secret and increases their vitality and energy.

An experiment to put you in the good-news frame of mind

The new study has drawn its “ground-breaking” conclusion from a series of five experiments. We invite you to take part in the first of these, a questionnaire that lists the most common examples of good news. You have to indicate which of them you have recently received, how much of the news you decided to share and how much you kept secret, at least for a while:

  • Completing a task or job successfully
  • Being accepted into a new job, club, programme, etc.
  • A new job opportunity has come up
  • Gaining access to academic training (degree, masters, vocational training, course, etc.) 
  • Receiving a promotion or bonus
  • Receiving recognition for your work
  • Having your business do well
  • Achieving a new sale, contract, project, etc.
  • Achieving goals other than those listed above
  • Receiving a financial windfall
  • Winning a prize or competition
  • Winning a lottery, a betting pool, etc.
  • Saving money (e.g. a refund on your tax return, a reduction in your mortgage, etc.)
  • An upcoming party or social event
  • An upcoming holiday or trip
  • An upcoming leisure activity or experience (e.g. concert, sporting event, etc.)
  • Giving a gift to someone
  • Receiving a gift
  • A surprise for someone else
  • Splurging on an indulgence
  • Moving or relocating
  • Obtaining a permit, licence, certificate, etc.
  • Making a new acquisition
  • Family news
  • Good news about your health
  • A new romantic relationship
  • A marriage proposal
  • Pregnancy or trying to conceive
  • Finding something you have been looking for
  • A new opportunity presenting itself
  • A new idea, goal or desire
  • A new plan or project
  • Personal wellbeing
  • A major decision or change other than those mentioned above
  • A piece of personal news other than those mentioned above
  • Something positive that may happen but is not yet certain
BBVA-OpenMind-Barral-Los beneficios de guardarse un secreto_1 - Un reciente estudio postula que mantener en secreto, al menos durante un tiempo, una información positiva es la mejor opción: mejora el estado de ánimo del custodio del secreto y aumenta su vitalidad y energía. Crédito: Westend61/Getty Images
A recent study suggests that keeping positive information secret, at least for a while, is the best option: it improves the mood of the keeper of the secret and increases their vitality and energy. Credit: Westend61/Getty Images.

The idea that keeping a positive secret is beneficial is a conclusion that runs counter to the classic view in psychology that it is a harmful and damaging act or process for the person keeping it. However, the authors of the new study question this paradigm, arguing that it is based on a picture of the scenario that is not complete, as it does not present all the actors (factors) involved:

1. Good secrets vs bad secrets (positive vs. negative information): The classic interpretation assumes that secrets are negative information, but this is not always the case. There are often times when a secret—or, if you prefer, information that is not shared—is positive. For example, your boss telling you you’ve been promoted, finding out you’ve won the lottery, or deciding to propose to your partner. The reality is that good news generates positive emotions, regardless of whether it is shared or not. But even without getting into the ambiguity of categorising a secret as positive or negative, there are secrets that are beneficial to the person who knows them precisely because they are harmful to someone else (for example, learning something compromising about your competitor at work).

Brainteaser 1: I have great news! What do you think?

There’s something positive hidden in this message. You want to know the secret, don’t you?

2. External pressure vs. personal choice: In general, keeping a bad secret (negative or damaging information) is something that is imposed on the secret keeper by external pressure or constraints; there is an obligation or moral duty, i.e. the secret is kept so as not to hurt, harm or worry another person. On the other hand, keeping positive information to oneself is a personal choice, because sharing it will not harm anyone else. Nevertheless, you might still prefer to keep it secret so that you can reveal it at the most opportune moment, or to amplify the surprise of the recipient when they find out… In short, it is a personal motivation, freely chosen, and for some reason positive for the keeper of the secret.

Brainteaser 2: It’s a surprise, but my lips are sealed

There’s something we want to share with you, but it’s a secret (message). You’ll have to figure it out on your own:

3. Social interaction vs. being alone with our thoughts: This is perhaps the crux of the matter and the paradigm shift presented by the new study. Whatever the nature of the secret (positive or negative), the harm attributed to keeping it hidden is based on how costly and intellectually exhausting it is to keep quiet when interacting with others, as it forces us to be in a constant state of alert, monitoring our words, gestures and reactions in order not to reveal anything, an effort that leaves our energy reserves low.

It also forces us to go against our nature and control our impulses in accordance with the principle of “capitalisation”. However, according to the researchers of the study, it has not been recognised until now that social relationships only take up a part of our time. The rest of our time is spent alone with our thoughts. We spend time anticipating how our loved ones and recipients of positive information will react when they find out; how surprised they will be; how you will share the good news; and what you will enjoy about it. And all these thoughts are fuel for positive emotions that increase our vitality and energy.

BBVA-OpenMind-Barral-Los beneficios de guardarse un secreto_2 Independientemente de la naturaleza del secreto (si es positivo o negativo), los perjuicios atribuidos a mantenerlo oculto se basan en lo costoso y agotador que es, desde el plano intelectual no soltar prenda al interaccionar con otras personas. Crédito: Pedrosala/Istock/Getty Images
IWhatever the nature of the secret (positive or negative), the harm attributed to keeping it hidden is based on how costly and intellectually exhausting it is to keep quiet when interacting with others. Credit: Pedrosala/Istock/Getty Images.

In reality, all this is just a theoretical explanation of a situation that we have all experienced in real life. Let’s take the example of hearing something positive, such as that the Christmas lottery ticket you bought and shared with your loved ones has been won, and that everyone is going to get a prize. How you first rejoice at the good news itself (positive information); then you imagine how your loved ones will be delighted when you share the news (alone with your thoughts); and finally there is the rush of positivity you experience when you call them on the phone and tell them that you have something important to tell them, but it would be better to tell them in person and that you will deliver the news in a while when you meet them at “such and such a place” (personal choice).

Brainteaser 3: I’ve already lost count of the secrets I have shared with you


Miguel Barral

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