Are Some Personality Types More Secretive? The Psychology Behind The Desire To Conceal Information

If you get a big promotion or your significant other gets down on one knee to propose, your first instinct may be to shout it from the rooftops. Who doesn't want to share their happy moments with the world?

Actually, a lot of people.

Recent research suggests that we all keep an average of 13 secrets at any one time—and that's likely an underestimate! A lot of those secrets are about things we're not so proud of, like a lie we’ve told, something we messed up at work, or a prejudice we have. Most people don't want that kind of information getting out. 

But despite the inclination to hide unflattering information, most people aren’t secretive 24/7, and they're not secretive about everything. In fact, you'd probably find it strange if someone hid their job, hobbies or opinions on common topics from you. These areas serve as safe conversation starters and ways to connect with others, not cards we keep close to our chests.

So why are some people more secretive than others?

Keeping secrets to protect your ego

According to Jordan Bridger, a social and behavioral scientist and the founder of Nudge Culture, the most common reason why people keep secrets is to protect their view of themselves. We perceive ourselves as being kind, moral, generous or honest, for example, and when we have thoughts or do things that conflict with this image, we're likely to keep them a secret.

What's happening here is something called schema theory. Schema theory says that we organize our experiences and perceptions into cognitive frameworks or schemas, which then influence how we interpret future information and events.

Bridger uses the hypothetical example of someone raised in a religious background. This person feels the need to attend a religious gathering because they believe it’s “right” based on their schema. They'll go to church, even though they don't want to, then step out of the service without anyone knowing. When approached, this person lies about sneaking out and pretends they stayed through the meeting. 

Even though they think lying is wrong, they're willing to lie because the lie creates a congruence—an agreement—with their ego. 

According to Bridger, the thought pattern goes something like this: "I think I'm this person, and this person acts in a certain way, so then I'm going to now create congruence, a guided relationship between who I think I am in relationship to the ethics and morals of that person. Even if I'm not that person, that doesn't matter, I'm actually playing a role.”

Keeping secrets so you won't be judged

Licensed clinical psychologist and author Dr. Kim Chronister, PsyD, says that when people behave secretly, there can be many variables at play. "However, the primary motivation is typically to avoid feeling shame and judgment. In this sense, it is usually to protect oneself.”

While Chronister lists a “fear of judgment” as one of the main reasons for keeping secrets, she says that people tend to vastly overestimate how much others will judge them when they reveal negative information. People don’t care nearly as much as we think they do about our mistakes, and they often feel relieved rather than judgmental when we confess. 

Studies agree with this. Some researchers have called our overblown fears of judgment "systematically miscalibrated." That's because people tend to be far more charitable than we expect—even when we're revealing darker secrets like infidelity. 

Keeping secrets because it's your natural style

Some people are just naturally secretive, and they have been all their lives. While many factors  can contribute to a secretive personality, Chronister believes that some people are just born this way. “INTJ personalities have been known to keep secrets the most as they are naturally private individuals and can be very mysterious as well,” she says.

Other types that may have a tendency to keep secrets include INFJs (who are legendarily tight-lipped because they value privacy), and solitude-loving INTPs. And because ENTJs prefer to keep their guard up, they can be pros at withholding information, which is a form of secret keeping.

Bridger, on the other hand, cautions against relying too heavily on personality typology as an all-encompassing explanation for why individuals may be prone to secrecy. “I don't think there's one personality that is predominant because it really comes down to schema or the schema of truth. Meaning, how your parents modeled, your childhood, your school experiences—all of those other dynamics that actually influenced you,” he says.

So, while personality may be one part of the puzzle, it's not the only piece.

Of course, we cannot talk about hiding your thoughts and intentions without considering the darker side of personality. 

People who have the traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy, as well as people who have clinically diagnosed personality disorders, may be more secretive than most, and they may keep secrets for different reasons than the rest of us. For people who score high in narcissism, for example, keeping secrets is a form of currency—a way to control and manipulate others. And people who score high in psychopathy may keep secrets because they lack empathy and don't see the harm in doing so. 

The aftermath of secret-keeping

Even if you're not lying outright, keeping secrets can have a negative effect on your life and relationships. “Many will see not revealing significant truths as deception,” Chronister says. “There are many natural consequences in a person's life when they regularly behave secretively. The biggest consequence is that relationships (professional, romantic, and platonic in nature) are compromised.”

So, while it’s okay to keep truly private business your own, Chronister says that you should consider the risks and potential fallout from violating someone's trust—for example, whether it could lead to a job loss or breakup. 

And it's not just your relationships that might suffer when you hide information—you could, too. “You're going to ruin your relationship with yourself," Bridger says. "You're going to go through a lot of guilt, you're going to go through a lot of shame.”

Understanding the pitfalls of secret-keeping, you may want to learn to be more transparent, especially with your partner. Our experts have the following tips:

  • Have a conversation with a person you’re worried will judge you—they may be more accepting than you think.
  • Think about how your secret could affect the person you’re keeping it from—how would you feel if you were in their shoes? What would you want them to do?
  • Weigh the risks of someone finding out your secret—is a little short-term relief worth the potential fallout?
  • Start with baby steps—Bridger suggests writing down “five to 10 ways you’d like to be recognized as a person who tells the truth.” From there, identify an instance in which you’d normally lie, and replace that with an honest response. Tackle these instances one at a time and slowly work on building resilience.
  • Talk to a therapist—if your secretive behavior is affecting your jobs and relationships, it's time to seek outside help.

Final words

While keeping secrets is a universal experience and can protect your sense of self, being too secretive can create problems in your life and relationships. The trick, as always, is to strike a healthy balance.

As Chronister says, “It is important to understand that holding secrets can be a good boundary to hold. The question ends up being how toxic is it for you to hold that secret in? Who is the safest person to reveal that secret to?” Figure that out, and you should feel okay about your decision—whether you choose to disclose or not.

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.