Secret-keeping depletes mental resources

December 4, 2013 by H. Roger Segelken

(Medical Xpress)—Stress from having to keep a secret – one's sexual orientation, for example, or simply a forbidden word – can cause lapses in physical stamina, intellectual acuity, executive function and even email etiquette.

So says a new report, "The Cost of Keeping It Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes It Depleting," by two research psychologists, Melissa J. Ferguson at Cornell and Clayton R. Critcher at the University of California, Berkeley, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"Before you hit the 'send' button and fire off that angry email, take a deep breath. Be aware that concealment may keep you from performing optimally and might impair your judgment," says Ferguson, associate professor in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. "Ask yourself: What else is going on in the back of my mind?"

Actually, that's a trick question – typical of the experimental tasks required of research subjects (student volunteers hoping to earn extra credit in psychology courses) in the Cornell and Berkeley studies. Some research subjects were forbidden to utter certain words (like "breakfast" and "therefore") in mock interview situations.

The constant work – monitoring their thoughts and trying not to say "therefore" or reveal sexual orientation in response to leading questions – caused what psychologists call "self-regulatory exertion and depletion." Depleted subjects underperformed in a variety of mental and physical tests immediately after their stressful interviews.

"People have limited willpower to exert self-control. It's the constant monitoring to make sure you don't slip up that's so exhausting," Critcher told the Berkeley student newspaper, The Daily Californian. All that self-regulating can reduce productivity in the workplace, said Critcher, a professor in Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

Cornell's Ferguson said the research team chose sexual orientation as another kind of secret to keep because of the "social stigma" attached to that information and the fact that people often feel as though they have to conceal it: "… sexual orientation is still a sensitive part of our identities in many social and professional situations, often because there are real and harmful consequences of revealing it due to prejudice and discrimination."

Thus, a gay man trying to conceal must self-monitor to avoid saying, "My boyfriend and I go there all the time!" Thinking fast, he might say, "My friend and I ..." But constant concealment and speech-suppression take a toll. Even a short span of concealment, around 10 minutes, can extract a cost. Experimental subjects who had struggled to conceal during brief, mock interviews did poorly on a variety of subsequent tests.

There were spatial intelligence tests, physical endurance tests and one with special resonance for college students: the TA's obnoxious email test. Student-subjects received emails purportedly from TAs (teaching assistants) who controlled their grades.

"You clearly didn't focus on the key elements of the assignment," the email read in part. "I don't know how anyone could have made such an obvious mistake." Then the experimental subjects were told to respond "appropriately" to the insulting message (see sidebar). Even though an equally rude reply could hurt their grades, students suffering self-regulatory depletion (and diminished judgment) hit the "send" button without hesitation.

"Of course, no one lost points for sending rude emails. This was just a psychology experiment – with the customary safeguards of confidentiality, and a little fun thrown in," Ferguson said. "What everyone gained was a better understanding: Concealment can be harmful. Not only does a lack of openness imperil interpersonal relationships, it can undermine people's intellectual and physical abilities."

Explore further: Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job

Related Stories

Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job

October 8, 2013
Most know that hiding something from others can cause internal angst. New research suggests the consequences can go far beyond emotional strife and that being forced to keep information concealed, such as one's sexual orientation, ...

Bisexual men on the 'down low' run risk for poor mental health

January 2, 2013
Bisexual men are less likely to disclose and more likely to conceal their sexual orientation than gay men. In the first study to look at the mental health of this population, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School ...

Sexual orientation has 'in between' groups, study shows

May 9, 2012
Sexual orientation is best represented as a continuum that has two new categories -- "mostly heterosexual" and "mostly gay/lesbian" -- in addition to heterosexual, bisexual or gay/lesbian, according to a new Cornell study.

Newly published research explores beliefs about sexual orientation

June 20, 2013
How to assess what people believe about sexual orientation is the focus of newly published research led by Patrick Grzanka, honors faculty fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University.

Considerable gender, racial and sexuality differences in attitudes toward bisexuality

November 5, 2013
Men who identify themselves as heterosexual are three times more likely to categorize bisexuality as "not a legitimate sexual orientation," an attitude that can encourage negative health outcomes in people who identify as ...

Youths' well-being linked to how well they conform to gender norms

August 8, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Regardless of their sexual orientation, teens who do not fit behavioral norms for their gender are not as happy as their gender-conforming peers, finds a new Cornell study published in the Archives of ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.