PostSecret: Part 4, PostSecret, Experimental Disclosure, and Virtual Confession Boxes

One of the striking features of PostSecret are the consistent reports of psychological healing and release that PostSecret has provided persons (go back and watch the second video from my first post in this series). As a research group we wanted to investigate these reports.

Our first question is one you might have asked: Can mailing in an anonymous secret be a source of psychological healing?

The answer might surprise you. To begin, let's back up and talk about the psychological research regarding experimental disclosure.

It is widely known that people, after positive and negative life events, share with others about those events and their reactions to them. This disclosure, particularly for negative events, is considered desirable and healthy. We recognize that people need to talk, share, and process their strong emotions. But what, exactly, are the curative facets of self-disclosure?

In pioneering work begun in the mid-80s, James Pennebaker had people come in to a laboratory and engage in a disclosure exercise. Specifically, across 3 to 5 days Pennebaker had participants come in and expressively write for 15-20 minutes about a traumatic or stressful incident in their life. After this period of writing, when compared to control participants, the participants in the experimental disclosure condition showed improved psychological and physical health. In short, simply writing about a trauma or significant life stressor produces physical and mental health benefits.

The effects of experimental disclosure have been replicated across hundreds of studies. Multiple meta-analytic reviews have summarized this work and all have reached the same conclusion: Writing expressively about negative life events can improve your health, physically and psychologically.

It should be noted that the effects of expressive writing are not as robust as those for psychotherapy. But given that expressive writing is so quick, easy, and cheap relative to therapy its more modest gains are not to be sniffed at.

Why does expressive writing produce these positive benefits? Three answers are typically offered.

First, the writing may be producing cathartic benefits. In this view, disclosure is mainly aimed at "getting things off your chest", emotionally speaking. This catharsis can be achieved by talking or writing.

A second idea is that what is gained in disclosure is insight. That is, as we talk or write we begin to objectify the events in our lives and our emotions. In disclosure we begin to step back and observe our inner responses. This "stepping back" grants us a bit of distance between ourselves and our problems. From this vantage we are better placed to explore healthier perspectives.

Finally, disclosure may be helping us achieve mastery over our emotions. Emotions can be chaotic and out of control. We feel pushed around by our emotions. Disclosure allows us to begin the process of regaining control of our feelings. We sort them out, label them, and channel them. Through disclosure we begin to tame and integrate our feelings into our self-concept.

I expect that disclosure involves all these factors--catharsis, insight, mastery--each contributing to the healing factor of disclosure.

The point I'd like to emphasize regarding the experimental disclosure research is that these features--catharsis, insight, mastery--don't necessarily require that we disclose to another person. Clearly, most of the time we do disclose, talk, and share with other people. But the healing effects may have less to do with the other person than the fact that we are externalizing our emotions. This externalizing allows us to vent, gain insight, and reacquire mastery.

I think we can now see how PostSecret can be producing mental health benefits. By writing down a secret, working on a creative way to communicate that secret, and physically dropping the postcard into a mailbox a person is activating those features we find in experimental disclosure: Catharsis, insight, and mastery.

In short, for a psychologist aware of the relevant literature it is actually not surprising at all that PostSecret has therapeutic benefits. Hundreds of studies have been done showing how expressive activities of this sort can improve psychological and physical health.

This literature also allows us to get a handle on the what strikes many skeptics of PostSecret to be odd and deviant: The anonymous nature of the process. I know among my professorial peers the anonymous nature of PostSecret seems to undermine its credibility as a mental health intervention. We assume that disclosure, to be effective, must be face-to-face and interpersonal. No doubt this kind of disclosure is preferable for a host of other reasons (e.g., communal cohesion) but this does not imply that anonymous secret sharing is unhealthy. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion: The health benefits of secret sharing don't wholly reside in the interpersonal aspect. Simply writing about events and emotions provides demonstrable benefits.

Perhaps this conclusion gains spiritual respectability when we think about the confession box used in Catholic confession where the penitent confesses to the priest through a screen. Of course, the goal of confession isn't psychological well-being, but, as we have seen, there are psychological benefits in disclosing emotionally distressing material. And in the confessional box this disclosure is anonymous.

And times are changing. The diaries and journals of times past, now seen from the perspective of this post as a source of psychological coping and healing, are giving way to online formats: blogging, Facebook or MySpace notes, and PostSecret. This makes our "stuff" much more publicly accessible, creating a host of issues and risks associated with this kind of disclosure. However, the psychological research suggests that these online forms of disclosure may not be solely driven by cultural pathology. Rather, these forms of disclosure flourish because they are producing tangible emotional and psychological benefits.


P.S.
Of course, one could write and not hit the Publish button. But what's the fun in that?


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6 thoughts on “PostSecret: Part 4, PostSecret, Experimental Disclosure, and Virtual Confession Boxes”

  1. Dr. Beck, from a theological perspective, one could suggest an experiment to compare psychological effects between those people who share their secrets with other people (even on an anonymous basis) with those people who share their secrets with God alone through prayer or reflection. I would speculate that there is some additional benefit to those who share their secret with another person (in addition to God).

  2. I would suggest that another way healing is possible through "facing a secret on a postcard and releasing it to a stranger" is transformative.

    I believe that through the act itself some people are able to recast painful parts of their personal history so that they see themselves as less a victim.

    In some cases reaching a place of acceptance and even thanks for the events because of how the pain can eventually lead to greater empathy or purpose in our lives.

    Dr. Martin Luther King is said. . .
    "Undeserved suffering is redemptive"

    -Frank
    postsecret

  3. Interesting blog, Dr. Beck -- today was my first visit.

    I note on your CV that you got your doctorate at SMU. Was Jamie Pennebaker still there, and did you work with him at all? Here's my secret: as a grad student at Virginia I co-taught an undergrad course with Jamie on Psychology of Religion and I got better teacher ratings than he did.

    At the time I was working with Vietnam vets. This was in the early days of PTSD as a distinct disorder, and treatment consisted largely of Freudian catharsis: once the vet gets his terrible wartime secrets off his chest, presumably the stress reactions will lift. We didn't find this to be the case. To me it seemed that the vets had found the wartime environment to be more compelling, more intense, more real than ordinary civilian reality. So they continued to live in America as if they were still in Vietnam, carrying with them all the paranoia, hyperattentiveness, hair-trigger violence, and psychic numbing that's adaptive in a wartime reality but that labels you a nut in civilian reality.

  4. No, just way over-busy. Lot's of stuff going on in my life.

    I was at SMU when JP was there. But we never interacted. I worked with a different research group and never was able to take a class with him. However, his experimental disclosure research was much talked about among the graduate students.

  5. Sorry for pestering you. I thought maybe your secret was that you never really went to SMU and that I was coming perilously close to revealing this secret. I was afraid your silence indicated that maybe you were sending someone out to silence me. Guess I can go outside again now.

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