Shameful secrets bother us more than guilty secrets

Everyone has secrets, but what causes someone to think about them over and over again? People who feel shame about a secret, as opposed to guilt, are more likely to be consumed by thoughts of what they are hiding, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Almost everyone keeps secrets, and they may be harmful to our well-being, our relationships and our health," said Michael L. Slepian, PhD, of Columbia University and lead author of the study. "How secrecy brings such harm, however, is highly understudied."

The study was published in the journal Emotion.

Slepian and his colleagues surveyed 1,000 participants asking a series of questions about secrets they had and how much shame and guilt they associated with those secrets. Participants were asked questions designed to measure shame (e.g., "I am worthless and small") and guilt (e.g., "I feel remorse and regret about something I have done"). Participants also reported the number of times they thought about their secret and concealed it each day during the prior month.

"We examined shame and guilt, the two most highly studied self-conscious emotions," Slepian said. "Unlike basic emotions, such as anger and fear, which refer to something outside of oneself, shame and guilt center on the self."

People who reported feeling shame thought about their secrets significantly more often than people who reported feeling guilty or those who felt no shame or guilt about their secret. The authors also found that neither guilt nor shame predicted concealment of secrets.

"Hiding a secret is largely driven by how often a person is having a conversation related to the secret with the person whom he or she is hiding it from, not how he or she feels about the secret," Slepian said.

When a person felt shame about the secret, he or she felt small, worthless or powerless, while guilt made an individual feel remorse, tension or regret. Secrets about one's mental health, a prior traumatic experience or unhappiness with one's physical appearance tended to evoke more shame, according to Slepian, whereas hurting another person, lying to someone or violating someone's trust induced more guilt.

Feeling regret did not cause a person to think repeatedly about a secret in the same way that feeling powerless did, Slepian concluded.

People should not be so hard on themselves when thinking about their secrets, the researchers said.

"If the secret feels burdensome, try not to take it personally but recognize instead that it reflects on your behavior, and you can change that," Slepian said. "Guilt focuses people on what to do next and so shifting away from shame toward guilt should help people better cope with their secrets and move forward."

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Materials provided by American Psychological Association. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Love hormone is released during crises

When you notice your partner is less interested than you are, your brain may send out a hormone that can help you fix the relationship.

Oxytocin is often called the "love hormone" or "cuddle chemical," but American and Norwegian researchers have found out that it may as well be called a "crisis hormone."

"When people notice that their partner is showing less interest in their relationship than they are, the level of this relationship-building hormone increases," says Andreas Aarseth Kristoffersen, a research assistant in NTNU's Department of psychology.

The hormone oxytocin has long been associated with relationships in several different ways. Oxytocin has a great reputation, because it is thought that it can make us feel better by reducing anxiety and making us feel more generous. Our brain secretes it during orgasm. It also influences the relationship between mother and child.

But it's not all cuddling and love.

Two -- or more -- possibilities

"Two main theories exist. Some scientists believe that oxytocin is released primarily to enhance a relationship and make it stronger when you're with someone you love," says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

But others believe that oxytocin levels increase primarily when we find ourselves in difficult or even threatening situations. In those cases, the hormone helps us seek out new social relationships.

However it may not just be either-or.

Hormone increases in good and bad times

NTNU researchers joined researchers from the University of New Mexico to study the connection between oxytocin and investment in couple relationships.

The researchers examined 75 American couples, and 148 Norwegian individuals who were one of the partners in their relationships. Newly minted Ph.D. Nicholas M. Grebe is the study's first author and visited Professor Kennair at NTNU's Department of Psychology. Kennair has collaborated with Grebe's Ph.D. advisor Professor Steven W. Gangestad.

"Participants in the study were asked to think about their partner and how they wish their partner would connect with them in the relationship," says Trond Viggo Grøntvedt, PhD, from the Department of Psychology.

Oxytocin levels were measured both before and during the tasks. In both studies, individuals showed elevated hormone levels when they felt strong personal investment in the bond. In this case, oxytocin's reputation as a love hormone holds up.

"Yes, oxytocin relates to one's feelings of involvement -- but, this association is particularly strong when one feels more involved than their partner," says Nick Grebe.

But the crucial finding came from simultaneously examining both partners' involvement..

The partners who were more invested in a relationship released more oxytocin when they thought about their relationship than the less invested partner did. Considering both members together, it was the difference in investment between partners that predicted an increase in oxytocin. Here, oxytocin may be acting more like a "crisis hormone."

"It's seems contradictory that you would release more oxytocin both when things are going well and when they're not, but that's how it is," says Aarseth Kristoffersen.

But why would that be?

Put more effort into the relationship

"This may be because people in a relationship where their partner is waffling need to engage more," Aarseth Kristoffersen says.

"The idea behind the prediction was that oxytocin might promote attention and motivation toward the relationship when it was both important and threatened," says Professor Gangestad.

For example, the partner who is most invested in the relationship might benefit from putting even more effort into making it work, so that the more sceptical party re-engages.

"What's implied here is a statement about what oxytocin is doing: It's perhaps fostering attention to and motivation to "take care of" the relationship," says Gangestad.

Nevertheless, there is apparently -- some would say fortunately -- a limit. This would apply to relationships where everything seems lost and is clearly heading for a break-up. In those situations, the more invested partner does not show the same increase in oxytocin levels.

"There's no point in investing more in a lost cause," says Kennair.

There appears to be a limit to how long you should spend energy and resources on a relationship that is simply over.

However, this is still mostly speculation for now.

What you believe is what matters

The researchers found no significant difference between US and Norwegian results. Responses to the study tasks were consistent across cultural conditions, which reinforces the theory that the underlying explanation is biological.

The procedure in the two countries differed somewhat. The American couples were asked directly about how committed they were in their relationships. The Norwegian individuals were asked how invested they thought their partner was in the relationship. This made no difference for the results.

It is enough if you think the relationship is weakening because your partner is losing interest. This will trigger your brain to release extra oxytocin.

"I might emphasize that it isn't necessarily "bad" or "good" for a person to release oxytocin. Yes, it might motivate attention that helps to maintain a relationship, but as the article hints, that isn't necessarily desirable, though it could be! What is biologically "functional" and socially "desirable" are two different things," says Nick Grebe.

"We think that viewing oxytocin in this way can help us understand why it plays a role in other kinds of interdependent social relationships -- new romances, mother-infant bonds, as two examples. The idea is that emotionally salient relationships, especially when those relationships are vulnerable, are elicitors of the oxytocin system," Nick Grebe concludes.

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