Don't Think About WMDs

Friday, May 05, 2006

By Wray Herbert

The leaking of privileged information is commonplace in human affairs. Such everyday leaks rarely make the evening news, of course, because most of these plumbing mishaps don’t involve wars, and most leakers aren’t leaders of the free world. What’s more, unlike some newsworthy leaks, the vast majority of everyday leaks are unintentional.

Still, they are leaks just the same, and psychologists are very interested in why we all find it so difficult to keep secrets—even when motivated to. In a recent experiment, psychologists at the University of California—San Diego tested subjects to see how often (and under what circumstances) they betrayed knowledge that only they were privy to.

For the purpose of a laboratory experiment, the privileged information was not controversial. Indeed, it was kept simple and mundane: The subjects had information about a set of geometrical shapes that, if they weren’t careful, they could accidentally reveal in conversation. The researchers—psychologist Lianne Wardlow Land and colleagues at UCSD-- told some of the subjects to be careful not to reveal the private information. Others got no such instructions. Somewhat surprisingly, as they report in April issue of Psychological Science, those who should have been more guarded in conversation actually were more likely to leak the experimentally “classified” information.

Why would this happen? It’s possible that focusing attention on the classified information boosts its salience in people’s minds, overwhelming the knowledge that it is supposed to remain hidden. In this sense, the researchers say, the slips are like “Simon says” errors. The study builds on the well known psychological fact that most people have a great deal of trouble suppressing any thoughts: The classical experiment told people not to think about something—white bears, for example, or pink elephants. Most people are simply not able to keep such contraband thinking out of their consciousness, as hard as they might try—and indeed when they try, the suppressed information rebounds with a fury. The current study extends this notion from thinking to speech. The bottom line appears to be that most of us can’t be trusted to censor ourselves, whether the privileged knowledge is trivial or a matter of national security.

For more insights into the human mind, visit the Association for Psychological Science at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:03 AM


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