How would you expect someone to act if they were keeping a secret from you? Reticent? Withdrawn? Uncommunicative? New research suggests secret-keepers actually swing in the opposite direction as they attempt to compensate for their clandestine behaviour - at least when it comes to email communication.
In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Maryland recruited 61 adults who said they had started keeping a 'major life secret' in the past six or seven years, the period during which Gmail has become popular.
Participants weren't asked to reveal the secret, but it had to be something they defined as "devastating to them or to the lives of others" if it got out.
Some of the potential consequences described were things like, "I would lose my wife" or, "Arrest. Jail. Maybe prison". One example was a woman keeping her at-home phone sex business from her ex-husband, with whom she shared custody of their children.
Using an Email Extraction Programme, the researchers looked at a year-long sample of outgoing mails to 'targets' (ie., the people they're keeping the secret from); confidants (who are in on the secret), and those who weren't involved at all.
They found that secret-keepers sent significantly more emails to 'targets' during the secret-keeping period than before, those emails were longer and they responded more quickly, too.
It was also found that secret-keepers use emails to offload on their confidants, using more negative emotion words and speaking in the past tense as they are "processing and making sense of their secret".
In contrast to the idea that people harbouring a potentially devastating secret are more, well, secretive, the findings support the 'hypervigilance hypothesis'.
"By paying attention to their contacts, secret-keepers can control the conversation to avoid talking about the secret, make sure their contacts have not figured out the secret, and ensure they are perceived to be acting 'normal'," the researchers explain.
What isn't clear is whether this approach helps in the long run.
"On the one hand, hypervigilance may worsen the relationship between secret-keepers and targets by creating tension," Yla Tausczik, who led the study, suggests.
"On the other hand, hypervigilance may strengthen the relationship between secret keepers and secret targets by avoiding the problem areas."
At least now we know: it's not the flakey, unresponsive emailers we need to watch out for.
If a pal or partner suddenly starts clogging up your inbox, that's when you should start worrying...