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  • T. W. Emory

Mum’s the word…

In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” His point being that as a general rule it’s not possible to keep a secret, for once shared it’s likely to get out. “Dead men tell no tales,” is another saying that makes a similar point—that tales stay secret only when those who know them are dead. A hundred years after Benjamin Franklin’s day, a humorist named Josh Billings wrote: “A secret ceases to be a secret if it is once confided—it is like a dollar bill, once broken it is never a dollar again.” So, secret-keeping is recognized as a dicey proposition, or at least it has the well-earned reputation of being so. What’s more, current research lends credence to this reputation.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that keeping secrets can be bad for one’s health—particularly when keeping a secret for a trusting confidant. Apparently, the more one fears betraying the trust of a friend, the more negative the effect on one’s mental state. The study found that the chief source for stress isn’t so much the effort to keep a friend’s secret while talking and socializing with others, but rather, it’s worrying about keeping the secret prior to one’s social interactions. And so, it’s all the pre-conversation fretting about keeping a secret that creates anxiety and leads to depression.

Curiously, the findings of the aforesaid study appear to support the argument that most conspiracy theories aren’t practicable because of how extremely difficult it would be for all the conspirators involved to keep the details of the conspiracy a secret. For that matter, if we put aside for a moment all the bad press about governmental leaks that seem to affirm this argument, there’s a striking irony worth noting about conspiracy theorists themselves. Those whose personal skepticism and distrust lead them to explain events or situations as being the result of covert actions carried out by the government, end up putting a great deal of confidence and trust in the secret-keeping abilities of the conspirators. But is such confidence and trust well-founded, given human nature?

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln spoke to the heart of the matter in his folksy manner when he said: “It’s not me who can’t keep a secret. It’s the people I tell that can’t.”

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