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The Coevolution of Secrecy and Stigmatization

Evidence from the Content of Distressing Secrets

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Abstract

We propose a coevolutionary model of secrecy and stigmatization. According to this model, secrecy functions to conceal potential fitness costs detected in oneself or one’s genetic kin. In three studies, we found that the content of participants’ distressing secrets overlapped significantly with three domains of social information that were important for inclusive fitness and served as cues for discriminating between rewarding and unrewarding interaction partners: health, mating, and social-exchange behavior. These findings support the notion that secrecy functions primarily as a defense against stigmatization by suppressing information about oneself or one’s kin that evolutionarily has been devalued in mating and social exchange.

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Notes

  1. We include secrets about kin in our definition of secrecy because family secrets often have social implications for genetic relatives via the assumptions audiences make about familial responsibility and genetic inheritance. For example, a mother may fear that others will hold her responsible for the criminal actions of her son either via accusations about poor parenting or the sanguineous diffusion of “bad genes.”

  2. Evidence for this is also found in Piazza 2008, unpublished data: Relational victimization is linked to being a secretive person but not keeping a secret.

  3. Findings regarding the relationship between negative affect and secrecy are inconsistent. Some researchers have found a positive relationship between negative affect and suppression (Major and Gramzow 1999), whereas others have found a positive relationship between negative affect and disclosure (Christophe and Rimé 1997; Finkenauer and Rimé 1998). We are not aware of any studies that have tested whether negative affect constitutes a causal mechanism of secrecy or disclosure. Obviously, more work is needed before strong conclusions can be drawn about the causal role of emotion in secrecy.

  4. Note that “having a nervous breakdown” was omitted because it was covered by item 9 “personal health problems”; “family criminal behavior” was covered under the broader label of “criminal behavior”; and “sexual abuse” and “physical abuse” were collapsed into a single item (5).

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Amy Purifoy Piazza for assistance with Study 3.

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Correspondence to Jared Piazza.

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Piazza, J., Bering, J.M. The Coevolution of Secrecy and Stigmatization. Hum Nat 21, 290–308 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-010-9090-4

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