People often sit on secrets that gnaw away at them because they’re worried others will judge them harshly.

But those fears are overblown, a series of psychological experiments demonstrates.

Folks tended to be much more charitable than expected when told a secret considered shameful by the person who held it, researchers found.

Secret holders consistently overestimate the reactions others will have if dirty laundry is aired, said co-researcher Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing with the University of Texas at Austin.

“When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message,” Kumar said in a university news release. “But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty and vulnerability.”

Kumar and his colleagues conducted a series of 12 experiments designed to accurately assess the fallout from revealing secrets.

For example, they asked several groups to imagine revealing a negative secret, and then predict how their confidante would judge them.

Each participant then revealed their secret to that person, and the confidante was asked how they responded to learning the secret.

The expected judgment was consistently worse than how the confidante actually responded, Kumar said.

This overestimation held for secrets divulged to a wide range of people – strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members and romantic partners.

“Their expectations were slightly more accurate for close others, but they were still systematically miscalibrated, even for the closest people in their lives,” Kumar said.

It also didn’t matter if the secret was silly — never having learned to ride a bike — or serious, like confessing to infidelity. Even with darker secrets, participants overestimated their confidante’s response.

“The magnitude of what you’re revealing can impact people’s evaluations, but it also impacts your expectations of those evaluations,” Kumar said.

People tend to keep secrets because they think their reputation will be damaged, Kumar said.

“If we believe other people will think we’re less trustworthy, that can really impact our decision to conceal information,” Kumar said.

However, the burden of secrets is heavy.

People often felt confident enough to reveal secrets once they learned they could be overestimating the negative impact of revelations, researchers said.

In one experiment, some people were told that they would probably not be judged harshly if they revealed a lie.

About 92% of people who were told that chose to reveal their lies, compared with 56% of people in a group simply challenged to confess a lie.

These findings, which were published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, could prove beneficial both to personal and workplace relationships, Kumar said.

“Any comprehensive understanding of how to navigate the workplace includes a better understanding of how people think, feel and behave,” Kumar said. “When workplace transgressions arise, people could be wise to consider that they also reveal warmth, trust and honesty when they are open and transparent about revealing negative information.”

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about secrets.

SOURCE: University of Texas at Austin, news release