Who do you tell your deepest, darkest secrets to and why?
In high school, I only remember scrawling names of crushes on my pencil case and, as an adult, I feel like I’m pretty considered with the information I want to keep to myself – but I do know a few of my friends curliest tales. Now I know why – new research shows the kind of personality traits you need to get people to tell you their secrets.
The research team theorised that those of us with secrets evaluate the people we wish to confide our secrets in based on their ‘interpersonal traits’. Specifically, the researchers, from Columbia University and the University of Queensland, wanted to see which of the traits for agreeableness (compassion, politeness) and extraversion (enthusiasm, assertiveness) were most likely to be attractive to those who need to share their secrets.
Using a series of personality tests and questionnaires, the research team quizzed groups of people using Mechanical Turk to analyse their personality and try to elucidate who we confide secrets in and what personality traits are favourable for doing so.
The four major traits they examined can be further elucidated as such:
Compassion: Empathic caring
Politeness: Concern with social norms or social rules
Enthusiasm: Positive sociality and experiencing positive emotions
Assertiveness: The drive to take action
The most important aspect for a confidant to have was compassion – the ability to sympathise or empathise with another’s feelings, demonstrate caring and are nonjudgemental. Generally, a secret is a secret for a reason and having to confide that in someone can be a daunting task. As a confidant, compassion is important because it allows for those telling the secret to feel like they are cared for. On the other hand, politeness, which is also a trait for agreeableness, was one of the least important aspects of being told a secret.
Interestingly, assertiveness was also positively associated with being told a secret. Assertiveness seems like a strong, extraverted, dominant trait that wouldn’t lend itself well to being confided in, but the research team found that this trait was positively associated with being told a secret. They suggest that the reason for this is that assertive people are ready to take action and ready to help with whatever secret they may be told.
Politeness, in this sense, refers to a person’s ability to respect others while adhering to social norms – which actually takes away from them being able to care for someone. At face value, it seems like politeness would be a positive trait for being told secrets, but in reality, participants in the study did not want to confide their secrets in those that adhere rigidly to social norms – perhaps because the secrets we usually tell are outside those boundaries.
Enthusiasm – those of us who love to have fun and are a little more ‘happy-go-lucky’ – is seen as a negative, too, and people are less likely to share their secrets to those who are too enthusiastic.
And that’s the hack: If you want to find out little Johnny’s high school crush, it’s best to be both compassionate and assertive and avoid being enthusiastic and polite. People are more likely to confide secrets in those that can demonstrate they are caring and willing to take action.
If you’re more likely to adhere to social norms and are over-enthusiastic, you’re not going to find out who ate all the pies any time soon.