If You're Keeping an Earth-Shattering Secret, Your Email Habits Change in a Surprising Way


Today in research that will fuel your paranoia, according to a new study, if your loved one is emailing you more than usual, they may be harboring a deep dark secret.

Researchers at the University of Maryland and University of Texas combed through 61 secret-keeping participants' emails to analyze how people communicate when they are hiding something major. 

In return for their intimate digital correspondence, researchers gave each participant $100. I hope they used that crisp Benjamin Franklin to take their unsuspecting loved ones out to a nice meal. 

Damian Dovarganes/AP

We aren't talking low-key "I forgot to take out the trash" or "I got high and ate all of your ravioli" secrets — this was more "I cheated on you with your sister" kind of stuff. The study describes the benchmark for these secrets as needing to be "potentially devastating to the participant or to the lives of others if the secret got out (e.g. 'I would be completely disowned and alienated from my family and some of my friends.'  'Arrest. jail. maybe prison.')."  

Researchers analyzed thousands of emails, all of which were sent starting a month before the secret incident occurred and ended a year later. 

The study found that if you are the one in the dark about this devastating secret, you will receive "significantly more" emails with words focusing on the present tense and using second person pronouns. The secret-keeper is shifting the conversation away from themselves and keeping the past in the damn past where it belongs.

As for the confidants, or the people who do know what you did last summer, they also were receiving more emails than before the secret existed — and the emails got longer too. Secret-keepers also use "more distress," "negative emotion words," first person singular pronouns, past tense verbs, insight words and causal words. Hey confidant, you've got bleak mail! 

Rather than supporting the social withdrawal hypothesis, indicating that secret-keeping results in more distant behavior, the findings supported the hypervigilance hypothesis — you're going to hit that send button a whole lot more when you have your shame face on.

May 9, 2016, 4:15 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.