Secrets leave us physically encumbered

We talk metaphorically of secrets as great weights that must be carried through life like a heavy burden. Consistent with the ever-growing literature on embodied cognition, a new study shows how secrets affect perception and action, as if their keepers are encumbered, literally.

A first study used participants recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. Those asked to write a recollection about a big secret rated a hill, depicted head-on, as being steeper than participants who wrote about a trivial secret. This matches previous research (pdf) showing that people who are physically encumbered tend to rate hills as steeper. By contrast, the big secret vs. small secret groups didn't differ on other measures, such as their rating of the sturdiness of a table.

Next, 36 undergrads threw a small beanbag at a target located just over two and a half meters away. Those who'd been asked to recall a meaningful secret threw their beanbag further, on average, than those asked to recall a trivial secret. It's as if they perceived the target to be further away, consistent with prior research showing that people who are physically encumbered tend to overestimate spatial distances.

In a penultimate study, forty participants who'd recently been unfaithful to their partners were recruited via Amazon. Those who said the secret of their infidelity was a burden (it bothered them, affected them and they thought about it a lot) tended to rate physical tasks, such as carrying shopping upstairs, as requiring more physical effort and energy than those who were unburdened by their infidelity. Ratings of non-physical tasks, by contrast, did not vary between the groups.

Finally, keeping a significant secret (in this case not revealing one's homosexuality whilst being video-interviewed) led gay male participants to be less likely to agree to help the researchers move some books; keeping a trivial secret (concealing one's extraversion) had no such effect.

Michael Slepian and his colleagues said their findings showed how carrying a secret leads to the experience of being weighed down. They don't think the findings can be explained by the mental effort of keeping a secret - for example, past research has shown that cognitive load prompts people to underestimate, not overestimate, physical distances. The researchers warned about the health implications of their findings. "We suggest that concealment ... leads to greater physical burden and perhaps eventually physical overexertion, exhaustion, and stress," they said.


Slepian, M., Masicampo, E., Toosi, N., and Ambady, N. (2012). The Physical Burdens of Secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0027598

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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