There are 38 types of secrets – and you're probably keeping at least one

You probably like to think of yourself as a fairly honest person.

But wait just a minute.

According to Michael Slepian, associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia University, it’s pretty likely you’re keeping at least one secret from the people around you.

In fact, he might be able predict what that secret is, as it’s likely to be one of the 38 types he’s found people keep.

‘All people have secrets,’ write Michael in his new book, The Secret Life Of Secrets.

Michael conducted a survey of 2,000 people in the US, asking them one simple question: ‘what is a secret that you are currently keeping?’.

From their answers, he was able to come up with 38 common secret categories, which he then shared as a list with more than 50,000 people from around the globe.

Of those people, 97% ticked off at least one secret from the list. Most were keeping more than just a few – participants reported having experienced 21 out of the 38 things, and that they’d kept 13 of these secret.

All this points to us being a bunch of sneaky secret-keepers. So if you aren’t carrying around one of these, we’d be shocked.

The 38 types of secrets people keep:

Take a moment to consider the following experiences. For each one, ask yourself: Have I had an experience like that? And if so, was it ever a secret?

‘Even if you have discussed the experience with someone, if you still intend to keep it from someone else, then it would still count as a secret,’ notes Michael.

  • Hurt another person (emotionally or physically)
  • Illegal drug use, or abuse of a legal drug (e.g., alcohol, painkillers)
  • Habit or addiction (but not involving drugs)
  • Theft (any kind of taking without asking)
  • Something illegal (other than drugs or theft)
  • Physical self-harm
  • Abortion
  • A traumatic experience (other than the above)
  • A lie
  • A violation of someone’s trust (other than by a lie)
  • Romantic desire (while single)
  • Romantic discontent (being unhappy in a relationship)
  • Extra-relational thoughts (thoughts about having relations with another person while in a relationship)
  • Emotional infidelity (having an inappropriate emotional connection with someone, engaging in something intimate other than sex)
  • Sexual infidelity
  • A relationship with someone who is cheating on someone else to be with you
  • Social discontent (unhappy with a friend, or unhappy with current social life)
  • Physical discontent (dislike of appearance or something physical about yourself)
  • Mental health struggles
  • Inappropriate behavior at work or school (or lying to get hired or accepted)
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Profession/work discontent (unhappy with your situation at work or school)
  • A planned marriage proposal
  • A planned surprise for someone (other than a marriage proposal)
  • A hidden hobby or possession
  • A hidden current (or past) relationship
  • A family secret
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Sexual behavior (other than sexual orientation)
  • Not having sex
  • A hidden preference (or non-preference) for something
  • A hidden belief (e.g., political, religious, views about social groups, prejudices)
  • Finances (e.g., spending, amount of money you have)
  • A hidden current (or past) employment or school activity
  • An ambition, plan, or goal for yourself
  • Unusual or counternormative behavior (unrelated to the above)
  • A specific story you keep secret (unrelated to the above)

‘The most common secrets include a lie we’ve told (69%), romantic desire (61%), sex (58%), and finances (58%),’ says Michael.

‘When I say that people on average have thirteen secrets from the list at any given time, you should take that to be an under-estimate, as what this count really reflects is the number of categories of secrets people have. You could have two or more secrets that fall into the same category, especially for those that are broad, such as finances, sexual behavior, violating someone’s trust, or doing something illegal.’

If you’re ticking off multiple on the list, don’t feel too bad. You’re certainly not the only one being a touch secretive.

‘When I ask people to simply tell me about a secret they are keeping, 92% of the time it fits into one of the 38 categories from our list. This means that we are not so alone in the secrets we keep, despite how isolating the experience of se- crecy can feel.

‘Far from being what makes us different from others, secrecy is what we have in common.’

The Secret Life Of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Well-being, Relationships, and Who We Are, is out now and available to buy from Waterstones.

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