Published Work: Secrets

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Secrets and Social Networks

Cowan, Sarah K.

Forthcoming in Current Opinion in Psychology
Secrets are information kept from others; they are relational. They shape the intimacy of our relationships, what we know of others and what we infer about the world. Recent research has promoted two models of voluntary secret disclosure. The first highlights deliberate and strategic disclosure to garner support and to avoid judgment. The second maintains strategic action but foregrounds that disclosures are made in contexts which shape who is in one’s social network and who may be the recipient of a disclosure. Work outside of this main vein examines the mechanisms and motivations to share others’ secrets as well as the potential consequences of doing so. The final avenue of inquiry in this review considers how keeping secrets can change (or avoid changing) the size and composition of the secret-keeper’s social network and what information is shared within it. Understanding how secrets spread within and form social networks informs work from public health to criminology to organizational management.

Category: Secrets, Social Networks


“It could turn ugly”: Selective Disclosure of Political Views and Biased Network Perception

Cowan, Sarah K., and Delia Baldassarri

Published in Social Networks 52: 1-17 (2018)
This article documents individuals selectively disclosing their political attitudes and the consequences for social influence and the democratic process. Using a large, diverse sample of American adults, we find Americans keep their political attitudes secret specifically from those with whom they disagree. As such, they produce the experience of highly homogeneous social contexts, in which only liberal or conservative views are voiced, while dissent remains silent, and often times goes unacknowledged. This experience is not the result of homogeneous social contexts but the appearance of them. Pervasive selective disclosure creates a gap between the objective social network and the perceived social network in which political agreement is over-estimated. On the micro-level, the processes of social influence on the formation and modification of political attitudes that occur when people converse with those with whom they disagree are thwarted and on the macro-level, this mechanism of selective disclosure leads to the perception of a greatly polarized public opinion.

Category: Public Opinion, Secrets, Social Networks


“When you’re in a crisis like that, you don’t want people to know”: Mortgage Strain, Stigma and Mental Health

Keene, Danya E., Sarah K. Cowan, and Amy Castro Baker*

Published in the American Journal of Public Health 105:5 1008-1012 (2015)
Objectives: Mortgage strain can have severe consequences for mental health, but the specific mechanisms underlying this relationship have yet to be revealed. Stigma represents one unexplored pathway. We analyze experiences of stigmatization, concealment and isolation among African-American homeowners who were experiencing mortgage strain.
Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 African-American homeowners who were experiencing mortgage strain.
Results: Our data show that mortgage strain can be a concealable stigma. Participants internalized this stigma, expressing shame about their mortgage situation. Additionally, some participants anticipated that others would view them as less worthy given their mortgage trouble. In an effort to avoid stigmatization, many concealed their mortgage trouble which often led to experiences of isolation. This stigmatization, concealment and isolation seemed to contribute to participants’ depression, anxiety and emotional distress.
Conclusions: Stigma may exacerbate the stress associated with mortgage strain and contribute to poor mental health, particularly among upwardly mobile African Americans who have overcome significant structural barriers to home ownership. Reducing stigma associated with mortgage strain may help to reduce the health consequences of this stressful life event.

This research was covered in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Category: Secrets, Social Networks, Stigma


Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions

Cowan, Sarah K.

Published in Sociological Science 1: 466-492 (2014)
This study examines who hears what secrets, comparing two similar secrets — one which is highly stigmatized and one which is less so. Using a unique survey representative of American adults and intake forms from a medical clinic, I document marked differences in who hears these secrets. People who are sympathetic to the stigmatizing secret are more likely to hear of it than those who may react negatively. This is a consequence not just of people selectively disclosing their own secrets but selectively sharing others’ as well. As a result, people in the same social network will be exposed to and influenced by different information about those they know and hence experience that network differently. When people effectively exist in networks tailored by others to not offend then the information they hear tends to be that of which they already approve. Were they to hear secrets they disapprove of then their attitudes might change but they are less likely to hear those secrets. As such, the patterns of secret-hearing contribute to a stasis in public opinion.

This research has been covered by The New York Times, Salon, National Public Radio, RH Reality Check , Daily Kos (twice — see the more recent one here), LifeSite, Minnesota Post, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, PSMag and ThinkProgress among other news sources.

This research won the Robert K. Merton Prize for Analytical Sociology from the International Network of Analytical Sociologists, and the Honorable Mention for Best Paper from the Communication, Information Technologies and Media section of the American Sociological Association.

Category: Abortion, Secrets, Social Networks