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Episode Transcript

MAUGHAN: I don’t like that at all.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: is it good or bad to keep secrets?

DUCKWORTH:  I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody other than Jason.

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, I have a great question for you, and I say this because it’s my question.

MAUGHAN: Oh good, I like these. 

DUCKWORTH: So, it’s got to be great. All right, here it is. It’s very simple. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to keep a secret?

MAUGHAN: Oh gosh.

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that a great question?

MAUGHAN: Is it good or bad to keep a secret? I mean, my gut reaction is that honesty always wins and transparency is always helpful.

DUCKWORTH: So, you’re like, “My gut reaction is: it’s a bad thing to keep a secret.” 

MAUGHAN: Right, but it’s good to keep them if you’ve given your word to do it. Let’s dive in, if you’re willing, Miss Angela Duckworth, to some examples, because my mind is now reeling about all the times when you’d want to keep them.

DUCKWORTH: I know. Now, I want to know what secrets you’re talking about. Okay, um, you know there’s this one short story that I read last year that — I loved it so much that I actually tried to memorize the entire thing.

MAUGHAN: Only you.  

DUCKWORTH: Well, I didn’t do it. I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I love this.” It was called “Ghosts,” and it was written by this young woman about her sister, and the older sister dies of an illness. And I can’t remember what it was, but they were both young women — you know, like, maybe 18 and 20 or something like that. And the story, it’s not fiction. This younger sister is remembering her older sister. And, um, the older sister, toward the end of her life, wasn’t able to speak for very long. And, you know, she had very little energy, but she made these, like, tape recordings for her sister. And one of the last things that she said in a tape recording was, “The happiest thing right now is: I’ve learned to talk openly. It works really, really well.” I read that, and I was like — I, I felt like that older sister was speaking to me. And I think, in a way, it’s about not keeping secrets. I think when we think about “secrets,’ it’s, like, infidelity, or, like, you know, I cheated on my taxes, or, like, I didn’t recycle, or something, right?

MAUGHAN: You’ve just gone to very different extremes there, by the way. “I didn’t recycle” to “I cheated on my spouse.” 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I was trying to give you a sense of the spectrum. But that’s the origin story for my question.  There are actual scientists who study secrets, but secrets are usually defined as self-relevant information that exposes a vulnerability. So, there’s, like, a risk to disclosing it, which is why, in a lot of cases, we don’t disclose, right? But I think it’s an interesting topic, and, like, are there any secrets that you’d be willing to tell me right now? And the answer, by the way, legitimately, can be “no.”

MAUGHAN: Well, I don’t think so. Here’s what’s funny. In my work, so much of what I do is very secretive — until it’s not.

DUCKWORTH: So, let’s not talk about like, you know, I can’t give you the formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken because, like, that would be a violation. Let’s go with this researcher definition of, like, “self-relevant.” You know, is there anything about you that you have kept secret that you’re willing to, like, disclose now? And again, feel free to say, like, “No, there’s nothing that I have secret,” or, “Yes, there are things that I have secret, but I’m not willing to tell you on No Stupid Questions.”

MAUGHAN: Yeah, seriously, let’s just be clear on the question. This is not just am I willing to tell you. It’s: am I willing to tell everybody. I don’t — I mean, I’ll tell you what I thought of when I first heard you telling this story from “Ghosts.” And it was a conversation that I had with a friend of mine in Harvard Square when I’d first moved to Boston. And I don’t know why we waxed so philosophical outside Peet’s Coffee shop.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, outside a coffee shop in Harvard Square. What else is there to do then wax philosophical?

MAUGHAN: But somehow we started talking about — and, and this person has a bit more of a past and some things that maybe others would find unsavory that he had done. And we were talking about a biblical passage that basically says that someday, at the end of times, whatever, that all our sins will be shouted from the rooftops and everything you whispered in private rooms will be made known, or something like that. And I said, “Okay, well I think that’s a terrible concept. I don’t like that at all.”   And, he — he disagreed. He’s like, “Oh, I think it’s beautiful.” And I said, “You think it’s beautiful that everyone’s sins will be shouted from the rooftops?” Like, that’s weird. I don’t need to know all the things you once did.

DUCKWORTH: Right, like it’s, like, lose-lose. It’s, like, bad for the person who’s the sinner, and it’s bad for, like, everybody who’s going to pass judgment on them.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, like, I don’t need to know your secrets. And this is what he said — what I thought about for a long time. He said, “I actually think it would be a very beautiful thing, because no one has anything left to hide. And we can just accept people for who they are. And all of them.” And John Legend has this song. Have you ever heard the song, “All of You”?

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh! I love “All of You,” which he wrote for Chrissy Teigen.

MAUGHAN: Yes. So, “All of me loves all of you.” And it talks about your “perfect imperfections. And the conversation with my friend in Harvard Square, and then the song, “All of You,” informs my thought process on the secrets maybe we keep about ourselves and our lack of willingness to maybe be vulnerable with other people. But I love the idea of “all of me loves all of you.” And my sister, who is a therapist, shared with me one time about a person that she’d worked with who had severe depression and was so afraid to tell his girlfriend. And eventually told her and really shared what he felt was the “shameful” secret. And then he said to her, “So, how should we break up?” And she said to him, “I don’t want to break up. This is what makes you, you. This is part of what makes you so sensitive to other people. This is maybe part of what makes you so caring, so willing to, and able, to notice other people’s feelings and needs.”

DUCKWORTH: Right, to have empathy and sympathy.

MAUGHAN: Yeah! And so, it was this John Legend idea that, like, “all of me loves all of you.” And I don’t want you to hide half of who you are, or I don’t want you to feel like you can’t tell me all these things. Now, those are very different types of secrets than marital infidelity or I robbed a bank. But I think, in the parlance of secrets, it’s interesting, you talked about, like, “I learned to talk openly,” it’s, “I’m learning to share all of me, and I don’t have to hide all these things in the fear that I might be unlovable.”

DUCKWORTH: I don’t want to say that, like, not recycling a soda can, and robbing a bank, and, like, cheating on your spouse, or admitting to clinical depression — like, that these are all exactly the same thing. But they do have something in common. Don’t they? They’re all things that we wish weren’t true, perhaps, and that we do feel like if we said them that we would be thought lesser of. Again, not to the same degree, but I think that’s what secrets have in common — at least the kinds of secrets that immediately leap to mind as secrets. Like, “I don’t want to disclose this, because you’ll think lesser of me.” You know, it turns out there’s a pretty healthy scientific literature on secrets, and there’s, like, a person who’s kind of the world expert on the science of secrets. And so, let me give you a little bit of what Michael Slepian, who’s at Columbia University, in the business school, like, what he’s found. So, first of all, in one of his highly-cited studies, 97 percent of people admit to keeping secrets. I guess that means that three percent either don’t keep secrets from other people or are just not willing to admit it.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say, it means that three percent are lying.  

DUCKWORTH: And actually, well, I was like, “You want to tell me a secret?”  And you’re like, “No, nothing really comes to mind.” I assume you would count yourself in the 97 percent who do have some secrets, but maybe not that you’re willing to — okay. Fine.

MAUGHAN: I would never say I don’t have any secrets. I for sure have secrets. Do you have secrets?

DUCKWORTH: I do, and I was actually thinking about this. I was like, “Well, if I want to talk to Mike about secrets, am I willing to tell him any secrets?”

MAUGHAN: Angela Duckworth, do you have a secret that you want to share with me?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t have any secrets that I “want” to share with you, but I have two secrets that I’m willing to share with you.

MAUGHAN: Well, also, I want to be very clear, if you don’t want to, I’m not going to pressure you, ever, into doing something you don’t want to do.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I will say that I’m in the 97 percent, right? Like, I’m in the large majority of people who can admit that I keep secrets. I’ll say this: I think I am willing to, like, tell you a secret or two, just for the experiment of how it will feel. But before I get there, Michael Slepian has also found that the average person is keeping about five secrets.

MAUGHAN: That’s so interesting. Like, I wouldn’t even know how to — I’ve got to think about this more.

DUCKWORTH: How do you quantify that?

MAUGHAN: I guess you’d have to feel like you have: these are the things you’re hiding.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and by the way, sometimes it’s hard to think of secrets. And,  like, one of the ways that he does research is he, um, actually asks you to take a survey, and I think surveys are so helpful. I always think of surveys as, like, “psychological selfies.” You know, if I ask you, like, “What’s your personality like?” you’re like, “Uhhhh, well,” adjectives leap to mind, but, like, sometimes it’s hard. But if you just take a personality questionnaire, it asks you questions like, “Are you very talkative? After going to a party, do you feel tired?” You know, “Do you always arrive in meetings on time?   Do you like to read and go to museums?” And you’re like, “Oh, I can answer these questions.” So, I think of questionnaires as being very helpful. And he actually has this secrets survey.

MAUGHAN: I’m sure as he asked it to me I would think of some secrets that I’m not currently thinking of. But, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, you do not have to answer these, right? So,   I’ll just rattle off a few of them. Like, you know, “Have you ever hurt another person emotionally or physically and kept the secret from someone else?” “Have you ever used illegal drugs, or even been addicted to a legal drug, like a painkiller?” “Have you ever stolen something?” “Have you ever physically harmed yourself?” “Have you lied to someone?” “Have you violated someone’s trust not by lying — for example, by snooping, by revealing information about them, by breaking or losing something that belonged to them, without telling them?” So, the list goes on. And I think it’s a really interesting thing, because then when you read them, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.”    So, I’ll tell you some secrets — in part, because what this research by Michael Slepian and also others, right? Like, there was a really nice article a few years ago in a journal I really like called Current Opinion in Psychology. And those were two other researchers, also in business school. I don’t know why these business school professors are studying secrets. Maybe there are more secrets in business or something. But Stephen Baum and Clayton Critcher. And I think one of the reasons I’m, like, a little motivated to experiment with telling you at least one or two secrets is that the research suggests that there is a cost to keeping secrets.

MAUGHAN: I’m sure, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: So, I want to see what it feels like to tell you — and maybe more than just you.

MAUGHAN: I am ready, and I will say this, the one commitment I have is no judgment.

DUCKWORTH: So, let me begin with one where you’re going to be like, “Oh, I’m so sorry,”  but like, I mean, this is embarrassing. It is what it is. When I got married to Jason, and we were, I guess, in our first year of marriage. We lived in San Francisco, and we had a little one-bedrooom apartment. I woke up one morning, and I — I wet the bed. We both woke up, honestly, and we both leapt out of bed, and we were, like, “What just happened?” And then, we figured out that I had wet the bed, because, like, I, you know, was totally drenched. And I have to say that it wasn’t a secret to Jason, because he was there. Had he not been there, I think I very well may have, like, rushed the sheets into the laundry and, like, bought a new mattress before he came home, and, like, never told him. I didn’t have the opportunity to hide the secret, but it was immediately humiliating. And I have to say, it also happened to me once at Harvard. I was, like, a freshman. I don’t know what these two incidents had in common, because in general, I’m not a bedwetter. But, like, telling somebody that as a grown adult, you have peed yourself — I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody other than Jason about this. So, yeah, that’s like a full-on secret.

MAUGHAN: But does it feel cathartic? I mean, because they talk about the “cost” of keeping a secret.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I feel like I’m almost cheating with that secret, because I’m confessing something to you that’s, like, you know, not really that deep and not that dark. It’s interesting. Shame, I think, like many emotions, it tends to be strongest in anticipation. So, in this case, I feel like once I’ve said it, it’s, like, not such a big deal, because all that anticipatory emotion about like, “Oh, well, what will Mike think when he looks at me and he knows that I’ve wet the bed as a grown adult?” Like, I don’t know. Once I say it, I’m like, “Oh, it can’t be that big a deal. Like, whatevs.”

MAUGHAN: Right. You know, I think about — in many religious communities, you think about Catholicism, for example, people can go to confession.

DUCKWORTH: You know I’m Catholic, technically. Wait, did I never tell you that I’m Catholic? Okay, that’s not a secret. I’m just saying. Did I never tell you?

MAUGHAN: Well, so, confession is a thing. But there’s a difference in keeping secrets. There’s one thing —  in confession you’re telling a person. In not keeping a secret at all, you’re kind of revealing it to everyone.

DUCKWORTH: Well, the shouting from the mountaintops thing, right, which is where you started, I think that is very different. I don’t know how much value there is to shout from the mount — I mean, I don’t know that I needed to tell, like, the entire world that I wet my bed. Like, I think there’s value in telling a person sometimes something that has been shameful to you or embarrassing. I don’t know that there’s, like — like, I’m really not into using Twitter as my confessional.  

MAUGHAN: Right. Sometimes, the right thing to do is share it with the world. Sometimes the right thing to do is share it with a much smaller group. And so, if you think about — there’s Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, there’s all these anonymouses.

DUCKWORTH: There are a lot of anonymouses, actually.

MAUGHAN: But what’s beautiful about it is it’s not like, “Hey, I have to go tell the entire world that I’m an alcoholic,” right? Alcoholics Anonymous is a group of people who get together, who go through kind of the 12 steps, because,  I think — and I’ve never done the 12 steps — but I think one of the principles is that shame is just germinated in secrecy. And so, if you at least have the people that are going through it with you, you get a sponsor who helps to guide you, who’s been through it before. So I, I think in this “is it good or bad to keep a secret,” sometimes the answer is: I don’t have to air my dirty laundry for the world, but also in order to move past this thing, I need to be open at least with a subset of people.  

DUCKWORTH: Right. So, like, at least originally psychologists who studied secrets thought that the reason why it’s costly to keep the burden of a secret is that there was this cognitive load of like, “Oh, the secret’s about to come out,” like Whac-A-Mole. And so, they thought, “Oh, there’s this fatigue and this tax of, like, the secret comes up, and then, oh, you have to, like, not blurt it out.” It turns out, that doesn’t happen very often. We’re not actually in that many interactions where I have to be like, “Please remember not to tell people that I wet my bed when I was a newlywed.” It’s really, actually, the cost of ruminating. So, when you have a secret about, you know, um,   an act of  infidelity, an illegal act, just something you think is “unworthy,” we ruminate about those things. And the catharsis that I think you’re talking about is not the release of, like, “Oh, I don’t have to keep the secret anymore, and so now I can free up all this cognitive bandwidth.” It’s more that you have been emancipated from rumination.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. That’s a heavy load to carry. So, Angela, I think you and I would both love to hear about our listeners’ experiences with keeping secrets. Has revealing a secret ever felt like relieving a burden? Or are there times you wished you kept a secret, but didn’t? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email it to And maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like the show, definitely don’t keep that a secret. The best thing you can do to support NSQ is to tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media, or leave a review in your podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: How does keeping a positive secret affect your life?

DUCKWORTH: You know, we’re on vacation, we’re in Vancouver, and he kneels down on one knee, and, like, I’m so happy.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about the consequences of keeping secrets.

MAUGHAN: So, Angela, here’s a study that was done in Britain in 2014 by a family law firm. And they found that 20 percent of people said they were keeping a major secret in their marriage. Of that 20 percent, one in four of them said the secret was so big that they worried it would end their marriage.   And a quarter of the respondents overall who admitted to lying said they’d kept the secret for over 25 years.

DUCKWORTH: Wow. One could guess that there is, like, a fair amount of rumination there. That’s certainly what the research shows, that, like, there is this cost. By the way, disclosing a secret is not costless. You know, it could actually destroy trust or a relationship, but what I would say to the one — I guess if I do the math right, like one in four times one in five, it’s like maybe one in 20 people in this survey are keeping a secret that they think could ruin their marriage — first of all, I’m not going to tell anybody what to do, but it turns out that one of the reasons why we don’t disclose things — we think that our standing will go down, we think you will think less of me when you know this about me. But the irony is that often when you disclose a secret, in general — not always, but in general, the receivers of secrets, they typically think, like, “Oh, what an honest person.”

MAUGHAN: Well, depending on the secret though, right?

DUCKWORTH: Depending on the secret. But let me tell you another secret that I really do think you should think less of me. It’s not a moral violation, but it’s very painful. I taught a class last semester to MBAs at Wharton — and I know you teach at a business school as well, at Brigham Young, and so you’ll have some empathy for this maybe, or at least sympathy. So, when the class ended, I just thought it had gone so well. Honestly, I was like, I worked my butt off, and I delivered a standout class. And I was thinking about all the positive feedback that I would get when I get my course reviews. I think you know what’s coming. I get my course reviews, and I’m, like, looking at these numbers, and I’m like, I don’t understand. Nine percent of the students in my class gave me the lowest possible rating on the response scale for, like, “How good was this class?”

MAUGHAN: The lowest?

DUCKWORTH: The lowest. And then, when you look in the verbal comments, you know, yeah, there were some positive comments, but there were students who said it was the worst class they had taken at Wharton. That is humiliating. Like, I didn’t tell anybody for a while. And then, of course I had to tell my teaching team. I had to. But I didn’t tell any of my colleagues, actually, for several days because, like, that is my vanity. That is my pride. I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know about anything else, but I know I’m a great teacher.” Turns out, for 9 percent of students, I was the worst possible teacher I could have been.

MAUGHAN: First of all, I’m sorry. That sucks.

DUCKWORTH: It really does. It was so terrible. It’s still so terrible. I’m, like, blushing even telling you. And the fact that I was so surprised by those teaching ratings just speaks to my arrogance. Like, how out of touch was I to not recognize that, like, nearly one in 10 of my students was, like, the whole time thinking this is the worst class.

MAUGHAN: So, let me go back then, again, does it feel cathartic? Does it feel good that that’s in the open? Like, what’s the cost of keeping a secret? You no longer have to ruminate on it? Or because there’s no shame you can just, like, “Hey, let’s go ahead and fix it”?

DUCKWORTH: You know, one of the reasons why I told you — I mean, I’m not kidding, I’ve been unduly influenced, perhaps, by, like, reading and thinking about Ted Lasso. We’re both Ted Lasso fans, I think, right?  

MAUGHAN: Huge Ted Lasso fans.

DUCKWORTH: And of course, Ted Lasso is a fictitious coach, but I’ve been, like, really obsessed with how true so many of the plotlines were and, you know, they’re all parables, right? So, it’s kind of like, what would Ted Lasso do? Ted Lasso would, you know, stick his hands in his khaki pants pockets and, like, shrug his shoulders in that adorable way and would say something really hard. And I think if I channel my inner Ted Lasso, I would say, like, “Character is a lot about, like, you know, recognizing when you’ve totally screwed up.” Like, I did something wrong. That was my responsibility. Actually, Jason Sudeikis, who co-wrote and conceived Ted Lasso the series, he was very much inspired by the coach John Wooden.

MAUGHAN: Who’s your, like, icon.

DUCKWORTH: I know we both love John Wooden, too. So, John Wooden, the legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach, one of the winningest coaches in history, he had these athletes who then grew up to, you know, do different things, and several of them wrote books, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And so, like, I really went down the rabbit holes. Like, not only reading John Wooden and watching, like, podcasts of Jason Sudeikis talk about how John Wooden inspired Ted Lasso. I was, like, reading the books of the players who had played with John Wooden about what they learned. And this is all happening around the same time as I got these disastrous, humiliating course ratings. I was like, okay, so making a real mistake — you know, not something where you could say, like, “It’s unfortunate it happened to me,” but like, “I did it, and it was wrong.” I was like, well, if these players and these coaches could own up to their flat-out failures — because that’s what these ratings are to me, it’s like a total F, like, complete failure — I’ll just do what Ted Lasso would do and just, like, tell somebody. And I sent the course rev — I forwarded, so they come as a PDF, I forwarded the whole thing — all of the numerical ratings and then all of these comments that are terrible to read, honestly, I forwarded them to a couple of colleagues, and I eventually set up some meetings, and I have to have them next week to, like, go through my, my teaching and, like, really try to understand what to change. So, I don’t want to say it’s, like, all tied up in a bow, but was cathartic? I mean, I’m, I’m legitimately glad that I watched Ted Lasso and that, like, somewhere in my subconscious I was like, “What would Ted Lasso do?” I think this is better than — certainly than keeping it a secret.  

MAUGHAN: I will say my favorite moment in Ted Lasso of all of the moments is at the end of the first season when Rebecca, who’s the owner of the team — so, if people don’t know the, the backstory, Rebecca owns the team, and she got it through a divorce with her husband. It was the only thing her husband ever cared about. 

DUCKWORTH: Rupert. Evil Rupert.

MAUGHAN: And she just wanted to destroy the club. No one knows that that’s her motivation. So, she hires Ted Lasso, who is this American football coach. He’s never coached soccer. Ted himself goes through a divorce in season one. And Rebecca comes downstairs to the coach’s office, and she’s kind of in tears. And she says, “Ted, I have to confess to you. I’ve been using you. I set you up for failure. I wanted you to lose. And you’re such a good human being. You’re trying to coach. And I’ve been trying to sabotage you, and I’m so sorry.” And I think in this moment Ted Lasso is finally going to lash out and be like, “How dare you screw with my life? I upended my family. I moved to London.”

DUCKWORTH: “I left my son.”

MAUGHAN: “I’ve been publicly, like, slaughtered in the press over, and over, and over.”

DUCKWORTH: “Called a wanker.”

MAUGHAN: I wasn’t going to say that, but the fans chant terrible things.  

DUCKWORTH: It doesn’t count when it’s, like, in British speak. That’s not cussing. 

MAUGHAN: But all these things, right? And I thought you’re going to finally see Ted Lasso in his righteous indignation. And I think that might be fair to respond to a secret that way, when you’ve been so brutally used. He stands up — and I don’t remember exactly, but he basically looks at her and says, “Divorce is hard. I forgive you.” And I thought what a beautifully empathetic way to say, like, “Hey, you’ve wronged me a lot,” but he immediately goes — and we’ve talked before about this first thought, second thought — first thought might be, “How dare you?” And second thought is, “Man, that’s tough.”

DUCKWORTH: That’s hard.

MAUGHAN: And that gives people permission to share their secrets, when you can respond with an element of grace. That doesn’t mean that someone who’s been wronged shouldn’t also have time. You should take time to feel that and dwell in those feelings and process them.

DUCKWORTH: Like it’s okay to feel angry. And you know the thing that you always say — because this isn’t our first, like, real conversation about hard things that are happening. You always say, “I’m so sorry.” There’s usually, like, a pause, and I can tell you’re thinking, and then you say, “I’m so sorry.” And that really is, like, a, a kind of nonjudgmental   grace. I mean, I’m usually not confessing things to you, like I, you know, sabotaged your football team. So, you know, is it cathartic? I don’t know, but it does feel like the right thing to do. Mike, let me, um, share with you, I think, the very latest research from Michael Slepian. So, Michael Slepian’s most recent work came out in the most prominent journal in psychology for long-form research, it’s called Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And Michael published this new series of research called “The Bright Side of Secrecy: The Energizing Effect of Positive Secrets.” And since it’s a long-form journal, I will not drag you through all of the studies that are in it. It’s, like, really long.

MAUGHAN: Reader’s Digest, please.

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’ll say that what I think brought Michael to this research on positive secrets — like, keeping good news secret — was that if it’s true that the cost of keeping a bad secret from other people is really rumination — like, we keep coming back to it and dwelling on it — the positive form of ruminating is savoring. So, he started to think like, well, what happens when you have good news that you keep inside by your own volition? You are maybe in a positive way savoring it as opposed to in a negative way ruminating about it. And so he does all these studies, and he develops “the good news questionnaire.” I’ll just read you a few of these items. So, here’s just, like, an inventory of good things that you tell the researchers that you’re either keeping quiet or not: completed a task, project, application, creation of something; getting accepted to a professional school or internship; getting a new job, a promotion; being recognized or celebrated for something at work; financial windfall; saving up money or successfully putting money away; having a party or social event that’s upcoming; giving a gift to someone; having an upcoming trip or vacation; overcoming an obstacle; a new reason to be hopeful; a new plan, or goal, or ambition; and on and on. So, the upshot of this very awesome set of studies is that just like keeping bad secrets has a psychological cost, because of rumination, it turns out that keeping good secrets has a boon and that people who are harboring positive secrets actually do feel more energetic. And it’s likely because of this savoring process.

MAUGHAN: This one seems crazy to me, to be honest. My main reaction, as you were reading that list, was not like, “Oh, you get to savor those things,” but was more like, “I feel sad that you don’t have friends.” 

DUCKWORTH: You don’t have a friend to tell.

MAUGHAN: Friend, or a sibling, or a spouse, or a child — whoever. And so, I actually, as you’re reading it, I thought to myself, “Man, if you have to keep all these little things secret —.”

DUCKWORTH: First of all, by the way, most people do tell other people about these things. The question is, are there any secrets that you keep to yourself that are positive, not negative? Not like, do you keep most good news to yourself, but do you keep any good news to yourself? And they did find that it’s very important that there’s an intrinsic motivation. That  you sort of, you know, want to do this. Now, again, you could say, like, “Well, why would you do that?” You know, why do  we wrap presents? To me, it’s very similar to keeping a good secret. We wrap it so that there is this extended waiting period where you know it’s going to be good. Anyway, my point is there is a kind of savoring. I mean, when I first read this research, I was like, have I ever had good news that I kept secret on purpose? And then, I thought, like, the MacArthur I had to keep secret. So, when I was given the MacArthur, I was told that I couldn’t tell anybody except for one person. They’re like, “You have to choose one person, and then six weeks later we’re going to make the announcement.” So I told Jason, but we couldn’t tell my father, and we couldn’t tell my mother. We couldn’t tell, like, all the scientists whose work was really actually being honored, because it was joint stuff. And I guess in those six weeks, the research would — you know, this is Michael Slepian’s research, but I think he would say that, like, when someone makes you keep a good secret: you know, you have a great business deal, but you’re not allowed to make it public yet, you also get some benefit. But the real benefit is, like, purposely, intrinsically, voluntarily keeping a good secret. I was like you. I was like, “I can’t think of anything, because I want to tell everybody immediately.” And I think that is actually mostly true of me, but maybe even in the delay period that is short — like when Jason asked me to get married, I was deliriously happy, and I wanted tell everybody immediately.

MAUGHAN: You’d been proposing since the second week.

DUCKWORTH: It is so long overdue, right, because it took a whole year. But, you know, we’re on vacation, we’re in Vancouver, and he kneels down on one knee, and, like, I’m so happy. And we did immediately call our parents, but you know, there was a delay, right? I mean, I wasn’t going to, like, interrupt our vacation to, like, call every single person that I wanted to tell. So, I would say though, in that time where I was, in a sense, voluntarily keeping good news, there was a kind of savoring because I was, in a positive way, sort of playing out in my head how freaking happy my girlfriends would be who knew I so wanted to get married to Jason. Like, I was kind of savoring it. So, it’s a little bit like wrapping a present in gift paper. Don’t you think? Like, did, did I persuade you?

MAUGHAN: No, I mean, I’m happy that you had a savoring moment, but I — in fact, if anything, this idea has convinced me more, going back to the original question, is it good or bad to keep a secret? I’m actually more persuaded that it’s bad to keep a secret than I was before, knowing this idea of savoring, because I don’t buy it. I also think that there is a lot of value to just, like, sharing things, good or bad, and letting people love all of us. So no, I remain deeply unconvinced. And, in fact, I think this research weirdly shoved me even further to the idea of “don’t keep secrets.” Because I want to be able to celebrate people. Uh, the other day at work, someone came in. This person’s very quiet, kind of shy, but everybody loves him. His wife comes in with balloons and sweet rolls and some of his kids, and it’s his birthday. And guess what? I don’t care if you wanted to keep that secret because you don’t want to be celebrated. We all want to celebrate you. And I think about the cost of carrying a secret and the rumination if you did something bad or you’re not proud of something because we’re creatures of status, like, let people love you. Let them show you. I also think there’s huge benefit to — I mean, just look at pay transparency. Lindsey Vonn talked all the ti— you love Lindsey. I love Lindsey. She talked all the time about how she would talk to the other men in skiing and in the olympics to find out how much they were being paid, and because they didn’t keep secrets, they told her, she negotiated and said you can’t pay me less because I’m a woman. I think about Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. Octavia Spencer, a Black actress. Jessica Chastain, a white actress.

DUCKWORTH: Both of them Oscar winners, right?

MAUGHAN: Both incredible actresses. But Jessica said to Octavia, “Women of color are being paid less. We’re going in together as a team. Whatever I get paid, you get paid. Whatever you get paid, I get paid.” And so, I think the idea of breaking down some of these secrets, whether they’re good secrets or bad secrets —.

DUCKWORTH: You’re on team disclosure. Like, you don’t tell everyone, you don’t have to tweet it, you don’t have to shout it from the mountaintops, but on balance, it’s a good rule to share.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, and if you win an award, maybe you have to keep it secret for six weeks, fine.

DUCKWORTH: But tell me, and I’m going to be, like, so happy for you.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, and if you don’t have friends who can be happy for you, then find some freaking new friends.  

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I hear you. I will say what I learned from reading Michael Slepian’s research and others is that, like, really, you know, what happens when you keep these things to yourself, there is a kind of rumination process. If it’s positive, you can call it savoring. If it’s negative, just call it rumination. But that’s an insight to me. Like, just know that that’s happening, and then you can decide what to do with it. And for you, I think you’re like, “Yeah, I know what to do with it. I’m going to just go out and belt John Legend.”

MAUGHAN: Right. The thing I love so much about those lyrics and about the Ted Lasso response to Rebecca is that we have to love all of everyone. We can’t just pick the good parts. We have to be willing to take the good with the bad. And guess what? We all have it. Maya Angelou always talked about the most boring people are those who pretend they don’t have skeletons in their closet, because we all have a skeleton. In fact, that’s what’s inside all of us. And I think that the idea to a happy life — going back to “Ghosts” — is that the happiest thing right now is that she has learned to talk openly. And that’s why I don’t think secrets do any favors for us, because we all have so many parts to us, and so do all the people we love, and so we have to learn to love all of it.

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Angela tells Mike about what she learned from Pulitzer Prize finalist Vauhini Vara’s short story “Ghosts.” Angela couldn’t recall which illness the author’s sister suffered from. Vara writes that her sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma — a cancer of the bone or soft tissue — when she was just a junior in high school We should also note that Vara didn’t write this story entirely on her own. She found the topic of her sister’s death particularly difficult to write about, and so she ended up turning to artificial intelligence for editorial assistance. Chat GPT-3 helped her to draft nine different versions of an essay about her grief. Angela was quoting from the final version. Angela also says, quote, “And the story, it’s not fiction,” but in the introduction to Ghosts, Vara writes, “My and my editor’s sole alterations to the AI-generated text were adding paragraph breaks in some instances and shortening the length of a few of the stories; because it has not been edited beyond this, inconsistencies and untruths appear.”

Later, Mike and Angela break down the lyrics from singer-songwriter John Legend’s 2013 song about his relationship with his wife, the model and television personality Chrissy Tiegen. They repeatedly refer to the song as, quote, “All of You,” but fans of Legend’s work will know that the piece is actually titled, “All of Me.” Then, Angela references research by Columbia University professor Michael Slepian that found that the average person is keeping about five secrets. This is incorrect. Slepian’s survey actually found that at any given moment, people have an average of 13 secrets that they’re hiding from either some or all people.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on meritocracy.

Kathleen FULTON: Hi, Angela and Mike. I really like your latest episode on meritocracy and the idea of doing a luck audit in particular. It reminded me of a recent interview on another show by Trevor Noah of Mark Cuban, who is taglined a “billionaire,” which I found really off-putting, because I have a real problem nowadays with successful people telling unsuccessful people how to better live their lives. So, I was actually surprised to come away with a really good impression of Mark Cuban. He acknowledges that he’s made good decisions but that it was the opportunities that came along that allowed any chance of him using his knowledge to become a billionaire and that he just got lucky. He says that there are a whole lot of people who are really, really smart and who do the same things he does, but they didn’t get as lucky. I think we don’t hear it as often as we need to, because people really want to believe that there’s a formula to follow and it’ll solve the puzzle of achieving success. But the truth is, we tend to resist a fundamental piece of wisdom that we’ve all heard, which is: life ain’t fair.

That was listener Kathleen Fulton. Thanks so much to her and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your experiences with keeping secrets. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: why are we so obsessed with the idea of free will?

DUCKWORTH: Does free will exist? And here’s the real question: does it even matter that we think about this question?

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help on this episode from Julie Kanfer and research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: Well said.

MAUGHAN: Well said.

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