The Scientific Reason You Cannot Keep a Secret

June 3rd 2016

Tricia Tongco

Blabbing secrets may have less to do with your need to share salacious gossip and more to do with how your brain works.

Keeping a secret taxes your brain.

Holding a secret creates a mental burden. To withhold information from other people, you have to pay attention to a) what other people already know and b) whether they’re allowed to know the secret information, too, psychologist Art Markman wrote in Fast Company.

As a result, casual conversation is anything but laid-back.

If you haven’t heard, humans are not that good at multitasking, and secret-keeping is a form of that. Multitasking takes mental capacity away from “metacognition,” a psychological term for the awareness of your own mental processes, a study from the University of Utah found.

“If you’re doing a lot, you have less attention to monitor your own activity, so you’re not aware that you’re missing some details,” Utah psychology professor David Strayer told Fast Company.

Keeping a secret is a form of mental juggling, and a casual conversation can be quite complex for the secret-keeper. It may be difficult to keep track of what you're allowed to say and what you aren't, which can lead you to divulge information you shouldn't, Markman said.

The hardest secrets to keep are usually about bad news.

This is the type of information that has negative consequences, either for the person with the secret or for someone else, Markman said. The result is social tension, which creates the same desire you feel to share a joke you've just heard or the urge you feel to post on social media about a new, little-known product, movie, or musician, he said.

Keeping a secret requires lying or omitting information.

People lie often: 60 percent of adults can't have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once, according to a 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts. Most people lie in everyday conversation when they are trying to appear likable and competent, the study found. So a lie meant to protect someone else’s information is different from the lies people commonly tell.

Letting the cat out of the bag isn’t always a bad thing.

Dishing gossip can have selfish purposes and can impair your vision as well as your judgment. But if you can’t keep yourself from spilling the tea, you can find solace in the fact that gossip has surprising benefits, from creating bonds to teaching empathy and social intelligence.

[h/t The Science of Us]