Why we keep secrets... and why we so yearn to share them

Secrets evolved as part of an early social toolkit that allowed the more intelligent to predict and influence the behaviour of others. Our need to tell our secrets harks back to another vital need: acceptance.
 (HT Illustration: Jayachandran) PREMIUM
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
Updated on Oct 09, 2021 04:09 PM IST
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ByVanessa Viegas

What are you keeping to yourself? Studies show that humans tend to start keeping secrets around the age of five (it’s considered a vital developmental milestone) and that the average person has about 13 things they don’t easily share.

Most secrets, unsurprisingly, have to do with wealth, privacy and sex. These typically include one’s bank balance, email passwords, true number of sexual partners, true history of drug use. Secrets about sexual orientation and sexual experimentation are high on the list, Michael Slepian, a psychologist and associate professor at Columbia Business School, stated in a paper he lead-authored in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in 2017. The paper was based on a scrutiny of over 13,000 secrets from across 10 different studies.

There’s an evolutionary reason we keep our secrets so well, and there’s an even more interesting story behind why we so yearn to share them.

According to anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, secrets evolved as a way for early humans to gain a competitive advantage over their peers and increase their own chances of survival. Since prehistoric man lived in small, tight-knit groups, they knew one another intimately. They had to co-operate to survive. But the members of this same tight-knit group were also their core competitors for limited resources, and for mates.

Secrets became part of an early social toolkit that allowed the more intelligent to interpret, predict and perhaps influence the behaviour of others, partly by withholding information and parcelling it out in ways that would be most advantageous to the self. (For more on this, check out Dunbar’s riveting 1996 book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.)

Keeping and selectively sharing information about oneself remains a key means of determining whom one can trust, and to what degree, though keeping secrets in the modern world has less to do with survival and more to do with ideas of shame and trust.


The reason humans yearn to share their secrets, even if this means sending them to a stranger on a postcard or whispering them into a cave, harks back to that close-knit group too, and the vital nature of acceptance. One had to be accepted in order to survive in the prehistoric world. The life-and-death implications of being or not being accepted are long gone, but the yearning to be part of the herd, for most humans, remains.

Share a secret on the right platform, then, and you’ve found yourself that still-vital thing: a community. That community could of course be prison, depending on the secret; but by and large, sharing a hidden aspect of the self and having it accepted by a group serves to make one feel seen and validated.

It’s a need that has driven an unusual social experiment begun by American writer Frank Warren 16 years ago. He launched a community art project in 2004 that created a safe space for people, including himself, to share secrets. The PostSecret project, still ongoing, encourages people to write their deepest secrets on homemade postcards and mail them to him.

Warren reads every postcard and keeps every secret in an ever-growing pile in his house. Some he also posts, without identifying the sender, on his website postsecret.com and @postsecret on Twitter. Postcards from his collection have been exhibited around the world, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Warren says he’s received over a million postcards from around the world so far. “What I’ve learned from the postcards is that there’s a primal urge to share our secrets and to sing our stories,” he tells Wknd. “Maybe it helps remind us that at those times when we feel most alone, we’re connected to others, to ourselves, and the universe in ways that remain invisible during our everyday lives.”

Secrets lie to us, Warren adds. “They want us to believe that no one will understand, that people will judge. But the truth is if we can find the courage to be vulnerable to find that one person or community or postcard to share our secret we realise we were never alone at all.”

A similar project, One Hello World by composer Jared Brickman, is considered the audio version of PostSecret. Brickman invites strangers to leave him voicemail, which he then converts into songs. Since August 2010, he’s received thousands of messages, some of them secrets the subjects wanted to get off their chests. In 2014, he collaborated with Warren to release an album called PostSecret on YouTube and SoundCloud.

“The first person with whom we have to share our secret is ourselves,” Warren advises. “Sometimes just finding the words can help us untangle feelings or confessions. At the same time, secrets offer something positive to the community, giving others permission to tell their story too.”

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Monday, November 29, 2021