How to Keep a Secret (according to a Harvard psychologist)

by | Jul 10, 2009 09:47 AM ET

Listening to music may distract you from spilling a secret.

When there's an elephant in the room staring you down, it can be hard to refrain from acknowledging it. You try to put it out of your mind, but the harder you think about not thinking about it, the larger it looms.

I'm talking about mastering the basic irony of human willpower. People demonstrate incredible capabilities to not spill delicious secrets or avoid eating fried food or shun cigarettes after a stressful day. But as everyone knows, not succumbing to the vices you genuinely wish to best, i.e. gossiping, unhealthy eating or smoking, can be a tooth-and-nail fight for control over the mind.

Wired.com recently posted an interview with Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner who has studied these "ironic processes" of the human brain. In a nutshell, Wegner has identified, via brain imaging, the struggle between conscious ("I can't tell this secret, even though I really want to") and unconscious  mental impulses (letting the secret slip out) that fuel those so-called ironic processes. Essentially, when we're under a lot of stress, those unconscious impulses kick into high gear (referred to as hyperaccessibility) and place our conscious efforts at a disadvantage. Wegner and other have documented this correlation between conscious secret-telling suppression and the unconscious mental recall of said secret in multiple studies.

What Wegner and associates have discovered in terms of mastering our secret-keeping and willpower in general largely boils down to a few pieces of practical advice:

•    Stay sober -- alcohol diminishes willpower (shocker!).

•    De-stress -- stress inhibits conscious mind control and facilitates hyperaccessibility, hence spillage of secrets.

•    Write it down -- Got a juicy tidbit ripe for the telling? Jot it down in a private journal. Experiments have found that expressing the mental obstacle helps eliminate the potential for an ironic process.

Or perhaps avoid hush-hush situations to begin with. Wegner also points out that an illicit love affair can be steamy just by virtue of the secrecy involved. In that case, it's probably a secret not worth keeping.

More secrets revealed:

Did the CIA test LSD on unsuspecting Americans?

What really happened at Kent State?

10 of the Biggest Lies in History

More To Explore