fb-pixelHow secrets weigh us down - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Uncommon Knowledge

How secrets weigh us down

And other surprising insights from the social sciences

Anthony Schultz / Globe Staff

How a secret weighs you down

Have you ever had a secret that felt like it weighed on you? According to a new study, that heavy feeling can have real physical consequences. People who were asked to think about a big secret subsequently judged a hill they saw in a picture to be steeper (46 degrees vs. 33 degrees) than people asked to think about a small secret. When throwing at a target, people thinking of big secrets tended to overthrow more. In a sample of people who recently committed infidelity, those who thought more about their infidelity judged physical--but not nonphysical--tasks to be harder. And in a sample of gay men, those asked to conceal their sexual orientation when answering questions in front of a camera were subsequently less willing to help lift books--but just as willing to engage in nonphysical help--than those concealing something trivial.


Slepian, M. et al., “The Physical Burdens of Secrecy,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

The trouble with independence

Higher education is supposed to give people an equal opportunity to climb the social ladder. However, a new study suggests that, even once kids make it to college, class-based differences in values may affect how they fare. A team of researchers surveyed college administrators and found that most of them, especially those at top colleges, described their college culture as emphasizing independence more than interdependence. Yet, a survey also revealed that first-generation college students (i.e., those whose parents lack college degrees) were motivated more by interdependence. The researchers also found that students who cited interdependent values got worse grades, even controlling for race and SAT scores. To confirm these connections experimentally, the researchers randomly assigned students to read a welcome letter from the university president that emphasized either independence or interdependence. After reading the letter emphasizing independence but not the one emphasizing interdependence, first-generation college students had more trouble than other students on tests of verbal and visual-spatial reasoning.


Stephens, N. et al., “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The couple that commutes together

You and your partner both commute to work. Efficiency and fairness would suggest that you should live about halfway between your workplaces. But there may be an odd downside to commuting in opposite directions. Surveys in the United States and Hong Kong found that a person who commuted in the same direction as his or her spouse was happier with the marriage; this was true independent of the length of the marriage, the number of children, income, gender, the difference in commuting time, or whether the couple left for work together. To double-check their results, the researchers also asked pairs of uncoupled opposite-sex individuals to walk in different paths to different rooms (i.e., a minicommute). Individuals were happier with their partners when they had walked in the same direction, regardless of whether they had walked the same exact path.

Huang, X. et al., “Going My Way? The Benefits of Travelling in the Same Direction,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The past warms you up

Where would you be more likely to ponder memories of your past: sitting on a beach, or sitting on a ski lift? A new study suggests it’s the latter--and that nostalgia appears to have a curious warming effect. Researchers asked people to submit daily reports of nostalgic feelings; more nostalgia was reported on colder days. The effect also showed up in experiments. Sitting in a cold room made people feel more nostalgic than sitting in a warm room, and thinking about a nostalgic event caused people to perceive a room to be warmer and allowed them to keep their hands immersed in cold water longer than thinking about an ordinary autobiographical event.


Zhou, X. et al., “Heartwarming Memories: Nostalgia Maintains Physiological Comfort,” Emotion (forthcoming).

Bringing enemies together, for a while

Hostility between different ethnic and religious groups is as old as mankind and doesn’t seem to be going away. But social scientists are finding that some efforts to resolve these hostilities are effective, at least in the short term. Researchers at MIT recruited Mexican immigrants and white Americans in Arizona, and Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, for an experiment on perspective-giving and perspective-taking. Participants were assigned to give their perspective to, or summarize the perspective of, someone from the other group. An interesting asymmetry emerged. Participants from the disempowered groups (immigrants, Palestinians) adopted more positive attitudes towards the empowered groups (whites, Israelis) after perspective-giving, whereas participants from the empowered groups adopted more positive attitudes towards the disempowered groups after perspective-taking. Unfortunately, a week after the interaction, the effects had mostly vanished.

Bruneau, E. & Saxe, R., “The Power of Being Heard: The Benefits of ‘Perspective-Giving’ in the Context of Intergroup Conflict,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.