What Hiding Reveals

By Leslie John
Harvard Business School

Editor's Note: Thanks to the comedy part of my career, I've had the pleasure of working with some very famous and successful "stars" (activate Project Name Drop now). And yet, almost all the behavioral scientists I've met - professors, practitioners, researchers and the assistants who work their calendar apps - are smarter, kinder, more worldly and (sometimes) funnier than all of those stars. (I mean, I wouldn't go see a stand-up show featuring the team at Irrational Labs, but you know, one-on-one.)
Funny aside, I consider it part of my unspoken mandate to share the wisdom and insight of these dedicated, thoughtful and perspective-shaking minds. I think you'll find them just as worthy of your fan-dom as any movie, TV or Instagram star.
With that, here's Leslie John. No pressure.

Imagine filling out a job application and encountering a question that forces you to disclose something unappealing about yourself, like, for example, your less-than-stellar college grades. Would you answer? Or, would you choose to withhold this information? Would you include this unflattering resume blemish? Or, would you choose to opt out and skip the application altogether?

If you’d withhold this information, you’re in agreement with most people. When faced with the choice of disclosing or withholding unflattering personal information, people, understandably, tend to be reticent to disclose. After all, who would want to draw attention to one’s blemishes?

While the desire to conceal unflattering information is understandable, it can, ironically, create a worse impression than simply coming clean and revealing it.

In my research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with Kate Barasz and Michael Norton, we found that this common intuition – to guard one’s secrets – can be counterproductive. When faced with the choice of revealing an unsavory piece of personal information (for example, a question about your patchy employment record) and hiding it, it’s actually better – in terms of the impression you make on others – to simply reveal it. In a series of experiments, we found that failing to answer sensitive questions, especially when that failure is salient (e.g., selecting a “choose not to answer” option on a multiple choice question), causes others to view you as circumspect and unlikeable.

In one series of experiments, research participants told us which of two eligible mates they would prefer to date. To make this decision, participants saw how each of the potential mates responded to several multiple-choice questions. The questions would reveal the respondent’s indiscretions, such as, “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are suffering from?” We carefully constructed the potential mates’ answers in order to test how answering, as opposed to not answering, affected how they came across to participants. One of the potential mates, the “revealer”,  said that they frequently engage in all of the shady behaviors that they were polled about. The other potential date, the “hider”, chose not to answer half of the questions.

When we asked participants which potential mate they would rather date, 64% said that they would choose the revealer over the hider. This result shocked us. The suitor who admits to shady dealings was more attractive than the secretive one (who may not have done anything wrong).

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  We’d like to add, “to hide, unwise.”

Why does this happen? When someone fails to reveal information, we tend to make inferences about that person’s character. The type of person who hides information is not someone to be trusted. We think that this is because self-disclosure is an important human activity. It is essential to forging connections with others and in the development of intimate relationships. And so, when someone abstains from this activity, we tend to view them as circumspect, so much so, that we’d rather hire someone, date someone, associate with someone, who just comes clean and admits to their foibles over someone who simply keeps mum.

Although there are certainly risks in disclosing unsavory information, our research demonstrates that there are also interpersonal risks to withholding, at least when the withholding is salient. So, in making decisions of whether to reveal or conceal potentially damaging personal information, in addition to considering the risk of revealing, don’t forget that there are also risks of withholding.

This is the type of finding that businesses, as well as individuals, should heed when deciding whether to admit their flaws, failures and mistakes.  KFC, nee Kentucky Fried Chicken, recently ran out of chicken in the UK.  Whoops.  The company admitted its mistake – in a fun and almost-NSFW way – and received kudos for their handling of the mishap.  We don’t know what would have happened had they reacted with defiance or denial, but it’s unlikely they would have gotten such praise. 

The poet Alexander Pope is credited with saying, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  We’d like to add, “to hide, unwise.”

By Leslie John
Harvard Business School

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