Academic Minute Podcast

Amit Kumar, University of Texas at Austin – Conceal Less, Reveal More

What secrets are you keeping?

Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says maybe it’s better to conceal less and reveal more.

Amit Kumar is currently an Asst. Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to joining the McCombs faculty, he completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Cornell University and his A.B. in Psychology and Economics from Harvard University. Professor Kumar’s research focuses on the scientific study of happiness and has been featured in popular media outlets such as The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Forbes, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Hidden Brain, The Huffington Post, National Geographic, The New York Times, NPR, Oprah Daily, Scientific American, Time Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His scholarly work has been published in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Current Opinion in Psychology, Emotion, The Journal of Consumer Psychology, The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Psychological Science.

Conceal Less, Reveal More

Secrecy tends to carry with it a psychological burden; concealing negative information can therefore negatively affect someone’s well-being. Why, then, do we keep secrets?

People keep negative information secret from others partly to protect their reputations—but our data suggest the concerns that people have about revealing negative information are systematically miscalibrated. That is, people expect they will be judged more harshly than they in fact are when they actually reveal such information, compared to simply imagining such interactions. These mistaken beliefs can create a somewhat misplaced barrier to greater transparency in our relationships with others.

The misguided expectations we observe in our studies arise across a broad range of relationship types, from strangers to spouses. Our research further suggests that part of the reason people are often overly worried about revealing negative information is because potential revealers focus primarily on the negative aspects of the information they are conveying.

What they don’t fully consider is that there are also positive qualities associated with the act of revelation, such as being more open and honest. Revealing negative information does communicate negative content, but it also communicates positive attributes like trust and vulnerability. Although potential revealers of information might focus largely on the negative content of the disclosure itself, those on the other end of these interactions are likely to focus more broadly, on both the content being revealed and the decision to reveal this information.

More generally, our decisions about whether to open or not are guided by how we expect to be evaluated by other people. That said, our experiments make clear that people are likely to overestimate how harshly they will be judged for revealing negative information to others. These miscalibrated expectations may leave people carrying a heavier burden of secrecy than might be ideal for their well-being.

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