How Lying Affects Your Health

Whether or not our era really is “post truth,” it sure feels like everybody’s obstructing justice, evading taxes, or else spinning yarns in front of cameras. And no one seems more guilty of these falsehood than powerful, important men.

Why are so many famous men famously known for lying? And what is that lying really costing them?

“Men in traditional roles—competitive sports, high-pressure finance—are the men who often get tripped up in having to keep a secret,” says Harvard psychologist William Pollack, Ph.D. “Men are shame-phobic—frightened to death to show shame and feel shame. They’ll go out of their way to deny anything that will bring them shame.”

What are men so worried about? “It’s tied into the codes of masculinity. Men feel like if they are shamed by others, then they’re less of a man,” Pollack says. This is especially true with athletes, Pollack says, who are expected to always win. It’s an impossible standard, even for the likes of Lance Armstrong—who can convince himself he’s cheating for his fans.

Once men start lying, they can continue by mentally compartmentalizing the truth, Pollack explains. “It’s not really repressed or forgotten; it’s pushed aside because it needs to be.”

The cost for doping athletes and disingenuous politicians is usually monetary, or none at all. But if you’ve been harboring a secret, research shows that it could be hurting your brain power, your health, and your happiness. Some of the downsides of secrets:

1. Secrets put you on edge.

When you keep a secret, you naturally try to push it out of your mind so that you don’t reveal all at exactly the wrong time. The problem: That only makes you might only think about it more, according to research from the University of Virginia.

Remember the scene in Inception where Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) says, “Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?” “Elephants,” Saito replies. Landmark research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found it’s true. In the study, people instructed not to think about a white bear couldn’t keep the bear out of their minds. Thought suppression is also believed to contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

2. Secrets distract you.

Secrets are the office equivalent of a buzzing light or a hacking coworker. University of Virginia students who were told to keep a specific a secret completed a computer test slower than their peers. Why? Actively withholding information is distracting, researchers explain.

3. Secrets make you fatter.

In a recent study, people wrote down either a major secret, like cheating on a spouse, or a minor secret, like eating pizza while on a diet. The bizarre result: Reflecting on big secrets made hills appear steeper and physical tasks seem harder. What’s going on? Your thoughts—like a secret weighing you down—might activate sensory regions in the brain associated with being physically weighed down, which can warp your perceptions.

4. Secrets hurt your health.

People who keep mum about disturbing experiences, like war-related trauma, are more likely to experience health problems. For example, one classic study found that Holocaust survivors who were more open in an interview about their experiences had better health 14 months later compared to people who were more reserved. HIV-positive men who concealed their homosexuality died earlier than men who were open about it, another study found.

We all hide things, though—so are we all doomed? Not at all, experts say. “To say all secrets are bad would be too simplistic,” says Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and author of “Some things need to be private.”

How do you know if you need to confess or if it’s better to stay silent? Follow these guidelines.


Someone asks you outright. “Where keeping a secret becomes a huge problem is when you start lying about it. Lying makes the error vastly worse,” Heitler says. “That not only breaks the trust, but shatters it.” Once you’ve lied, she’ll always wonder if you’re lying again.

The situation isn’t bad yet. There’s a big difference between saying, “I’m sorry, but I spent $200 on our credit card without asking you,” and saying, “We need to declare bankruptcy.” The sooner you come clean, the better, Heitler says.

It’s driving you crazy. You might feel tense or anxious around someone if you’re worried they might find out a big secret. “Now that person isn’t someone you open up to, it’s someone you have to fend off on some level. That can cause a real rift in the relationship,” says Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.


You’re only waiting a few days. Say your wife had a bad day at work—it’s OK to tell her tomorrow that your company is forgoing pay raises this year. You’ll be able to have a less stressful, more productive conversation about finances when you’re both clear-headed.

It’s not your secret to tell. Men are great at this one: Because we don’t want to shame other people, we’ll keep another person’s secret to the death, Pollack says.

You’re not that close to whoever’s asking. There are some things your acquaintances and coworkers don’t need to know. Sidestep the subject. Or just say, “Eh, it’s complicated. Hey, did you hear about [insert relevant senate testimony here]?”

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