Is Theon Greyjoy Like a Secret?
I’m writing this post having just come back from beautiful Annville Pennsylvania, the home of Lebanon Valley College (motto: “Now with more corn!”) and this year’s meeting of the annual Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society meeting. I was fortunate to attend a number of interesting talks, though, with all due respect to this year’s lineup, I have to say that I found more to love at last year’s meeting, though it should be borne in mind that at last year’s conference, held at Plymouth State University (motto: “Education. Without the Income Tax!”) during one of the breaks I went to a chili eating contest on campus which was hot, hot, hot.
Anyway, I’m back at Penn now (motto: “Hey. At least we’re not in New Haven“), and I thought I’d write about one talk that particularly caught my attention, by Jack Demarest and Joanna Raymundo, both of Monmouth University (motto: “Not too close to Newark!”), entitled, “Crossing the line: When does having “just a friend” become potential infidelity in extrapair relationships?” and this year’s first runner-up for the award for most punctuation marks in a title, coming in at three, just shy of Barry Kuhle’s impressive four. (The abstracts can be found in the program.) This will connect to Theon Greyjoy by and by, but it’s true you have to work for it a bit.
As you might guess from the title, the authors were interested in the continuum of acts that your mate might engage in, and the point at which increasingly intimate acts cross the line from acceptable to unacceptable, according to their student sample. That is, we all know that people would say that having sex with someone else is “unacceptable” in the context of a relationship, but what about, to use their favored example, lap sitting? Over or under the line? They gave subjects a list of seven acts that one’s partner might engage in with an opposite sex friend, and asked respondents to rate how “acceptable” each of the acts would be. If my notes are right, the acts included: going to class together, having lunch, going to the movies, having dinner together, going to a bar at night, excessive texting, and having intimate conversations that he/she does not share. (Lap-sitting was left off the list, presumably as an avenue for future research. I might also note that it seems to me that “excessive texting” prejudges the issue, as it already implies that it’s too much, as opposed to just a lot.)
It turns out that the line is crossed fairly early in this list, with going to class and having lunch rated below the midpoint for acceptable, while the rest weren’t. Subjects were particularly irritated with mates texting with a opposite sex friend and having intimate private chats with them.
I don’t think these findings are too surprising, though as with many unsurprising findings there is something nice about having some measurements instead of just shared intuitions about how it would come out. The authors also found some sex differences, with women rating the behaviors more unacceptable.
The talk got me thinking a little bit about secrets, which, in previous work (with Peter DeScioli) turned out to be important in the context of friendship: the extent to which people reported sharing secrets with a friend was a strong predictor of the strength of that friendship. Secret sharing did better than seemingly important variables such as the length of the friendship and the frequency with which the friend was seen. Why do secrets make friendships strong? And why are people so irritated when their friends and mates share secrets to which they themselves are not privy? And what is the relationship between the answers to these two questions?
Clearly one danger posed by secrets is that damaging information about oneself might be moving from one person to the other. This is transparently a reason to be wary of secret-sharing, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Suppose you found out that your mate shared a secret along the lines that they had cheated on their SATs, tortured a bunny, or voted Republican. Even sharing secrets of such dark deeds that have nothing to do with you would, I think, be found irritating by most people.
So, another way to think about secrets is that they’re like hostages. Consider Theon Greyjoy, a character in Game of Thrones, heir to the throne of the Iron Islands, raised by the Starks in Winterfell. (For non-watchers of the show, you should simply think of this as one member of one coalition being held hostage by another coalition.) By having a hostage at Winterfell, the good behavior of the Iron Islands was ensured because if the Islands acted aggressively, the hostage could be killed. When hostage exchange is mutual, as was common in Europe in the Middle Ages, groups or coalitions has good reason to trust their would-be ally because each one was vulnerable to the other. If I know that you know that I can harm your hostage if you betray me, then I can be much more confident that you won’t do so.
Secrets might work a bit like this. When I tell you a secret that would damage me if it got out, I’m in effect giving you a hostage to kill (information to disclose) if and when you wish. Making myself vulnerable in this way can actually be a strategic advantage in that you now know that I’m unlikely to betray you, out of fear that my secret will be revealed. My guaranteed loyalty to you makes me a better ally than one whose loyalty could not be assured. If we both share secrets with one another, then we are bound to one another reciprocally, potentially making our friendship strong and stable.
This is all well and good, but of course the key point is that while alliances are good for the people who are in them, they represent threats to others. In political contexts, whether the fictitious Game of Thrones or real international relations, others’ alliances represent threats because the participating coalitions can join forces and gang up on you: that’s the whole point of alliances. To the extent that one thinks that friendships are alliances (as opposed to, for instance, exchange relations), as some of us do, others’ close friendships with your friends are threats to you as well. This explains why it’s so irritating to find out that your best friend is sharing secrets with someone else: the strength of that friendship alliance between your best friend and another person constitutes a threat to your best-friendship. It’s bad to lose your place at the top of someone else’s list of friends.
And of course this holds for the mating domain as well, in which you really don’t want to lose your place at the top of the queue. I think this is a part of the reason that sharing secrets carries a sense of intimacy and why people don’t want their mates sharing secrets. Doing so is a way to build the strength of the relationship because secrets are like hostages, ensuring each party that the other will remain loyal. And you don’t want your best friend or your mate loyal to others, especially not more than they are to you.
As with real hostages, the solution is not without problems. Just as hostages can die, secrets can lose their value, say, if the information becomes widely known or is for some reason no longer relevant. For instance, the world can change in such a way that the secret is no longer damaging if it gets out: knowing that someone was (secretly) gay might in the past have been a powerful thing to know, but now it’s not much more scandalous than knowing someone is (secretly) a Cincinnati Bengals fan. This situation can be particularly vexing if one person in a pair’s secrets becomes powerless while the other’s does not, leading to a power asymmetry where once there was equality.
It’s important to note that explanation is unsatisfying for some kinds of secrets. Information that isn’t dangerous to the speaker if it got out, for instance, isn’t well covered by this explanation, yet my sense is that people wouldn’t want their mates secretly sharing even innocuous information with a potential rival suitor. If you found out your mate was exchanging literary critiques with an opposite-sex friend, but doing so secretly, this would still likely be vexing. We care about the fact that both parties are communicating secretly in and of itself. It could be that this is simply because by the very nature of secrets, one doesn’t know the content of the information exchanged, and so anything passed along secret channels is a potential threat. And, of course, there’s a recursive property: the fact that one is passing secrets to someone else is itself a secret, adding to the potential to erode trust.
Ultimately, what is and is not acceptable in relationships probably boils down to the perception of risk to the relationship. Going to class with someone doesn’t signal to either party or others than there is anything special in the relationship, and constitutes only a relatively minor threat. But when I give you one of my secrets, I simultaneously signal my trust in you and give you leverage, both of which can be to my advantage, and, consequently, to others’ disadvantage.
So that’s the secret of secrets.
But don’t tell anyone.