Study: When It Comes To Secrets, Shame Weighs Us Down More Than Guilt

WASHINGTON — You would be hard pressed to find anyone on this planet without at least one dark secret. How that secret burdens one’s conscious may depend on how the person feels keeping that secret locked away. Now, a new study finds that shameful secrets are more likely to consume their keepers’ thoughts than guilty ones.

People keep secrets for a variety of reasons; some are fairly harmless and mundane, while others could hurt or upset other people if they were to come to light. It’s the more serious secrets that have been known to weigh heavily on their keepers, and two feelings often associated with dark secrets are guilt and shame.

“Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships and our health,” explains Dr. Michael L. Slepian, lead author of the study, in a release. “How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied.”

Researchers surveyed 1,000 participants on their secrets and the guilt or shame they associated with keeping them. For example, subjects were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I am worthless and small,” in reference to shame; or, “I feel remorse and regret about something I have done,” in reference to guilt.

Additionally, the study’s subjects were asked to estimate the number of times they thought about, and concealed, their secrets on a daily basis during the prior month.

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“We examined shame and guilt, the two most highly studied self-conscious emotions,” Slepian says. “Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self.”

Those who reported feeling shame thought about their secrets significantly more often than those who admitted to feeling guilty, or those who felt neither emotion for that matter. Interestingly, neither shame nor guilt appeared to have an impact on how often participants’ concealed their secrets.

According to the study’s authors, secrets regarding one’s own mental health, prior traumatic experiences, or unhappiness about their physical appearance caused more shame, while violating someone else’s trust or lying typically invoked more guilt.

Researchers say that people should try not to be so hard on themselves, and attempt to view these negative feelings as an opportunity to introduce some positive changes into their lives.

“If the secret feels burdensome, try not to take it personally but recognize instead that it reflects on your behavior, and you can change that,” Slepian comments.

The study was conducted by the American Psychological Association and published in the scientific journal Emotion. 

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About the Author

John Anderer

Originally from Long Island, John has been writing professionally for over 7 years. When he isn’t writing about the latest scientific studies, you can find him working on his first horror novel. John splits his time between the United States and Kraków, Poland.