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Self concealment

Dr. Simon Moss


some individuals often conceal adverse information about themselves, such as errors or diseases. This tendency, called self concealment (Larson & Chastain, 1990)--which is strongly related to, but distinct from, limited self disclosure (Uysal, Lin & Knee, 2010)--is positively related to anxiety and depression (Kahn & Hessling, 2001), loneliness (Cramer & Lake, 1998), as well as symptoms of illness (Larson & Chastain, 1990).

Mechanisms that underpin the effects of self concealment on wellbeing

Kelley (2002) proposed three arguments to explain the inverse relationship between self concealment and wellbeing. First, concealment might demand persistent effort, which can ultimately elicit physiological and psychological symptoms. Second, the suppression of various concerns can amplify the sensitivity of individuals to these anxieties, called ironic rebound. Third, consistent with self perception theory (Bem, 1972), concealment of behavior implies to individuals they must have been acting inappropriately or shamefully, compromising their perception of themselves.

Need satisfaction

In contrast, Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) maintained that self determination theory could explain the consequences of concealment. Specifically, concealment might obstruct the core psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

To demonstrate, when individuals conceal some information about themselves, they often need to hide other acts or monitor their communication, incessantly and vigilantly. Their behavior, thus, is constrained rather than autonomous. In addition, because they conceal adverse information, their behavior cannot be validated by friends or family--integral to the need for competence. Furthermore, they do not feel they can form trusting, stable, and candid relationships with other individuals, obstructing relatedness.

Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) conducted two studies to assess this set of arguments. In the first study, participants completed a survey that assessed the extent to which they conceal negative information about themselves, with items like "I'm often afraid I'll reveal something I don't want to". The next scale measured self disclosure--which is related to, but distinct from, self concealment. The third scale evaluated the degree to which individuals felt their core psychological needs-- autonomy, competence, and relatedness--were fulfilled. Questions included "People in my life care about me". Finally, the participants completed a series of questions that assessed their wellbeing, encompassing anxiety, physical symptoms, perceived stress, self esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective vitality.

Structural equation modeling confirmed that self concealment was inversely related to need satisfaction, which in turn was positively associated with wellbeing. This relationship between self concealment and need satisfaction persisted after self disclosure was controlled.

Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) also conducted another study. In this study, participants completed a series of questions daily, over the course of 16 consecutive days. Again, the questions assessed self concealment, need satisfaction, and wellbeing during the corresponding day. The results of the previous study were replicated, both between and within participants.

These findings resolve an important controversy. Kelley (2002) maintained that self concealment might not be damaging. Instead, self concealment coincides with a specific combination of traits, characterized by the inclination to inhibit the expression of information. These traits, and not the behavior itself, might be inversely related to wellbeing.

The findings that were observed by Uysal, Lin and Knee (2010) contradict this contention. The tendency to conceal information on one day was inversely associated with need satisfaction on the same day, even in the same participant. Hence, even when personal dispositions are essentially controlled, self concealment is still related to need satisfaction.

Determinants of self concealment

According to Gromet and Pronin (2009), individuals may be reluctant to disclose their concerns, anxieties, and doubts--despite the drawbacks of concealment--because they do not predict the responses of other people accurately. In short, they assume they will be perceived unfavorably. They are, however, not perceived as unfavorably as they anticipate. They sometimes do not realize they will be perceived favorably as a consequence of their apparent honesty.

In one study, conducted by Gromet and Pronin (2009), participants, all of whom were university students, were exposed to either a list of 40 statements about their potential anxieties or insecurities, such as "I can be extremely impulsive..." or a list of 40 statements that were not as aversive, such as "I am pretty secure in who I am". They chose five statements they felt applied to their lives, and imagined disclosing these statements to another student. Finally, they rated the extent to which they would be liked to disliked by the other student.

Another set of participants imagined that another student had disclosed these five statements. They evaluated the degree to which they might like this person. Generally, participants assumed they would be liked less if they disclosed negative information--anxieties and concerns--rather than positive information. However, participants actually preferred students who disclosed negative information.

Indeed, many studies indicate that individuals who disclose revealing information are more likely to be liked (e.g., Kleinke & Kahn, 1980), unless all of their comments are self deprecating (Robinson, Johnson, & Shields, 1995). A subsequent study indicated that students who disclosed negative information were perceived as more honest, which in turn shaped overall perceptions of liking.

Relational mobility

According to Schug, Yuki, and Maddux (2010), some individuals feel they can readily form new friendship and terminate older friendships, called relational mobility. This relational mobility tends to encourage self disclosure--a concept that is related to self concealment.

To clarify, self disclosure elicits both benefits and drawbacks. That is, one the one hand, self disclosure can strengthen relationships& that is, such disclosure indicates closeness and trust. On the other hand, after individuals disclose personal information, they might be rejected.

When relational mobility is elevated, the benefits of self disclosure are more important than are the drawbacks. Because relationships can be readily terminated, the capacity to strengthen these bonds is valued. However, because relationships can be readily formed, rejection is not especially distressing. When relational mobility is low, the benefits of self disclosure are not as important as the drawbacks. Because relationships are seldom terminated, the capacity to strengthen these bonds is not critical. However, because relationships cannot be readily formed, rejection is particularly upsetting.

Schug, Yuki, and Maddux (2010) uncovered findings that verify these arguments. In particular, relational mobility was measured with a series of items like "(People) in my environment can choose who they interact with". Relational mobility was positively associated with the willingness to disclose private information, like secrets, failures, and worries. Indeed, the usual observation that disclosure is elevated in Americans, relative to Japanese, diminished after relational mobility was controlled. A subsequent study showed that motivation to strengthen relationships mediated the association between relational mobility and self disclosure.

Cues that relate to privacy

According to John, Acquisti, and Loewenstein (2010), some cues highlight the importance of privacy. Other cues, like indirect questions or informal behavior, do not highlight the importance of privacy. Cues that underscore the importance of privacy tend to curb disclosure, perhaps increasing the likelihood of self concealment.

The effect of these cues was examined in the context of disclosure in surveys. In the first study, participants were told the researchers were interested in ethics. They were informed they will be asked to evaluate the extent to which they perceive a series of behaviors, such as cheating on tax returns or furtively watching someone undress, as ethical. In addition, they were informed that, because these judgments depends on the past behaviors of individuals, participants will be asked whether or not they have engaged in these behaviors.

For each act, some participants were directly asked "Have you done this behavior". Other participants were asked indirectly. Specifically, they were asked "If you have ever done this behavior, how unethical do you think it was?" and "If you have NEVER done this behavior, how unethical do you think it would be, if you were to do it?". Which of these two questions they answered obliquely assessed the past behavior of individuals. If the question was indirect, participants were more willing to concede they had indeed engaged in these behaviors. Presumably, direct questions activate the importance of privacy, curbing disclosure.

The second study was similar except a different procedure was utilized to activate concerns about privacy. Specifically, some participants were exposed to a very professional or formal website, with standard fonts, few colors, correct spelling, and a company logo. Other participants were exposed to an informal website (cf., Ivory & Hearst 2002), with a variety of fonts, many colors, colloquial expressions, and deliberately misspelled words like "U" instead of "you". In practice, informal websites are less likely to utilize technology that preserves privacy. Nevertheless, because they are informal, these websites may not be as likely to evoke concerns about privacy. These websites seems more friendly than exploitative.

The results were interestingly. If the website was informal, instead of professional, participants were more inclined to concede sensitive behaviors, like furtively watching someone undress. They were also more likely to send their email address--supposedly to receive more information about the research. Furthermore, as revealed by subsequent questions, when the website was informal, participants were not as concerned about incriminating themselves or whether their answers would be anonymous.

As a subsequent study showed, whether the behaviors are perceived as socially desirable did not differ between the conditions: hence the difference between informal and professional websites can be ascribed to awareness of privacy concerns and not social desirability. The final study, however, uncovered an important caveat. In particular, if the importance of privacy was highlighted before participants were exposed to the website, this difference between informal and professional websites diminished.

These findings are also consistent with past research, showing that promises of confidentiality can actually curb disclosure. These pledges may increase the salience of privacy concerns. Accordingly, procedures that actually increase confidentiality can underscore privacy concerns and therefore, paradoxically, reduce disclosure (Singer, Hippler, & Schwarz, 1992). This importance of cues also explains conflicting attitudes to privacy: Individuals often seem willing to disclose private information, on social networking sites for example, but occasionally seem very concerned about privacy. Level of disclosure does not only depend on rational calculations but on subtle and sometimes misleading cues.

Unconscious or incidental primes

When individuals are incidentally exposed to words that revolve around disclosure, such as open, free, shared, communicate, and candid, they are more willing to disclosure personal feelings about themselves. Specifically, in one study, conducted by Grecco et al. (2013), all participants completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange sets of five words to construct sentences that consist of four words. In addition, they were asked to specify the extent to which they agree or disagree with various statements about themselves. To prime disclosure, the unscrambled sentences included words that relate to disclosure, and the statements also epitomized disclosure, such as "Sometimes I like discussing my problems". In the control condition, the unscrambled sentences included words that relate to limited disclosure, such as restricted, concealed, refuse, quiet, and shy, and the statements epitomized nondisclosure, such as "Sometimes I like keeping my problems to myself". Finally, participants were instructed to write two essays about themselves, including their best recent event and their best quality.

If participants had been exposed to words or statements that epitomize disclosure, their essays included more references to their feelings, epitomizing disclosure. In addition, they wrote longer essays. None of the participants identified the purpose of this study during debriefing, and the effects, therefore, were evoked outside awareness.

Exposure to other races or rivals

After people are exposed to reminders of other races, ethnicities, or rivals, they tend to behave more unpredictably, especially if they tend to be distrustful. They become more difficult to decipher, partly because they conceal their emotions or intentions (Rios, Ybarra, & Sanchez-Burks, 2013). In other words, they are more likely to demonstrate the hallmarks of self-concealment. Such unpredictable behavior, arguably, diminishes the likelihood that people feel they can be exploited by rivals.

For example, in one study, participants completed a task in which they were exposed to faces of their own race or faces of another race. Next, they completed a measure, comprising eight items, that determines whether they engage in strategies that diminish the extent to which they are predictable, such as resist disclosure or change their behavior over time. In addition, they completed a measure of trust, called faith in people. If exposed to another race, instead of their own race, participants reported more unpredictable tendencies, but only if they also tend to distrust other people.

A subsequent study replicated these findings, even when distrust was manipulated rather than measured. Furthermore, after they were exposed to other races, people revealed less about themselves, as evaluated by independent judges, while writing an autobiographical essay.

Consequences of self concealment and related factors


Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson (2008) also showed how willingness to express negative emotions, which may be inversely related to self concealment, enhances relationships. Specifically, according to Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson (2008), the expression of negative emotions should elicit support, establish close rapport, and foster intimacy.

In one study, for example, participants were instructed to imagine that a roommate was preparing for a date, exhibiting signs of anxiety (Graham, Huang, Clark, & Helgeson, 2008). Some participants were informed the roommate also conceded this anxiety. Other participants were informed the roommate did not express this anxiety. Finally, some participants were not informed of whether or not this anxiety was expressed.

Next, participants rated the extent to which they would help this person--such as search the internet to identify the locations and times of possible movies. In addition, they rated the extent to which they like this person. Participants were more inclined to assist and to like someone who divulged feelings of anxiety (Graham, Huang, Clark, & Helgeson, 2008).

The next study examined whether these disclosures would affect actual helping rather than merely intentions to help. In this study, participants were informed they would be evaluating some speeches (Graham, Huang, Clark, & Helgeson, 2008). First, they watched a female confederate present a speech over video. The experimenter highlighted how this speaker seemed nervous. In one condition, during the speech, the speaker conceded that she was "a little nervous". In the other condition, she did not disclose her anxiety.

The participant then rated the extent to which they liked this speaker. In addition, they were informed the speaker was now preparing another presentation, on famous painters during the modern era. The participants were then granted an opportunity to help this speaker, by undertaking research on the computer and emailing information. Again, participants were more likely to like and to assist the speaker if she disclosed her anxiety (Graham, Huang, Clark, & Helgeson, 2008).

Furthermore, consistent with these benefits of disclosure, Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson (2008) showed that willingness to express negative emotions was positively related to the quantity and intimacy of relationships they form, even after controlling extraversion, age, and duration on campus. These findings indicate that expression of emotions tends to consolidate relationships. Specifically, as Graham, Huang, Clark, and Helgeson (2008) contend, these disclosures indicates a sense of trust. This trust increases the perceived likelihood that a solid, close, and intimate relationship could be formed. Similarly, these disclosures evoke a feeling of closeness (see also Clark, Ouellette, Powell, & Milberg, 1987& Kashdan, Volkmann, Breen, & Han, 2007).

Nevertheless, the expression of negative emotions might not always be suitable. Depressed individuals might express the same negative emotions often, despite attempts from the other person to assist (Marcus & Nardone, 1992& Segrin & Abramson, 1994). Similarly, some individuals express negative emotions to someone with whom they could not form a cooperative relationship--such as someone on a bus. That is, they express negative emotions almost indiscriminately. In these circumstances, disclosures are likely to evoke negative responses rather than elicit a sense of intimacy (cf., Sommers, 1984).

Reciprocity of disclosure and relationships

In general, when one person discloses personal information to someone, this other person also becomes more inclined to disclose personal information (Dindia, 1988, 2002& Jourard, 1971), sometimes called the self-disclosure reciprocity effect. In addition, after two individuals both disclose information about themselves reciprocally, alternating between one person and the other person, they become more inclined to like each other and feel a sense of closeness and similarity. They also enjoy interactions more when they both disclose freely.

This possibility was demonstrated by Sprecher, Treger, Wondra, Hilaire, and Wallpe (2013). In this study, pairs of individuals, previously unacquainted with each other, conversed over Skype. In some instances, both individuals were encouraged to disclose information about themselves. That is, they were encouraged to answer increasingly more personal or intimate questions about themselves, beginning with their favorite hobbies or celebrities and progressing to their happiest childhood memories and emotional experiences with a friend. The two individuals alternated between asking and answering the questions. In other instances, only one individual answered the question, and the other individual disclosed.

After the interaction, the individuals indicated the degree to which they liked the other person, felt close or similar to the other person, and enjoyed the conversation. When both individuals disclosed information, they were more likely to like each other, feel close, feel similar, and enjoy the interaction. Interestingly, if the conversation was continued so that both individuals disclosed to the same extent, but did not alternate after each question, the relationship was not as strong.

Presumably, alternating disclosures implies that each person is responsive, like a caring parent, promoting memories or feelings of safety and trust. In contrast, failure to reciprocate disclosure violates an implicit norm, provoking distrust or uncertainty.

Job dissatisfaction

If people suppress their social identity, such as their ethnicity or a disability, their job satisfaction tends to diminish and intentions to leave may increase (Madera, King, & Hebl, 2012). Individuals are often reluctant to admit their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or level of disability. Yet, as Madera, King, and Hebl (2012) showed, when people attempt to suppress this identity, they were more likely to feel dissatisfied with their job and more willing to leave the organization. These relationships were mediated by perceived discrimination. Presumably, when individuals suppress these identities, they are more sensitive to negative comments or perceptions of people towards these identities. They feel excluded as a consequence.

The wellbeing in other people

Self concealment or limited disclosure in one person may also compromise the wellbeing of another individual, at least indirectly. Specifically, as Jordan, Monin, Dweck, Lovett, John, and Gross (2011) argued, many people conceal rather than concede the negative emotions they experience--anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other problems--even from friends. These friends, therefore, tend to underestimate the frequency with which people in general experience such problems. Therefore, when they experience problems themselves, they feel isolated and lonely. They do not recognize their anxieties and concerns are prevalent, even in their friend and colleagues.

Jordan, Monin, Dweck, Lovett, John, and Gross (2011) conducted a series of studies that validated this reasoning. For example, these studies showed that people are, unsurprisingly, more likely to conceal rather than discuss negative emotions than positive emotions. Even one of their closest friends were shown to underestimate the frequency of these unpleasant feelings. Thus, this reluctance to disclose negative emotions could, at least partly, explain the tendency of individuals to underestimate the prevalence of unpleasant feelings in the population. Interestingly, people who underestimate the prevalence of unpleasant feelings were especially likely to experience limited levels of life satisfaction but elevated levels of loneliness.


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Last Update: 7/7/2016