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Research Explores Consequences Of Revealing Embarrassing Details

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Research Explores Consequences Of Revealing Embarrassing Details

Research Explores Consequences Of Revealing Embarrassing Details

Research Explores Consequences Of Revealing Embarrassing Details

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Confessing embarrassing information is often better than withholding it. Research finds that people distrust withholders of details more than they dislike revealers of unsavory information.


OK, so here's the scene. You're being interviewed for a job. You get asked an embarrassing question, and you think about it and you decide - what the heck? - I'll tell the truth. Well, we're tracking new research this morning that suggests you might just have improved your chances of landing that job, that there are benefits on a job interview or any kind of situation to being unguarded. Here now to explain is NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.


KELLY: So what do you have?

VEDANTAM: Well, there's this new research that looks at how we answer embarrassing questions. Honestly, Leslie John, Kate Barasz and Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School suggest that many of us might be picking the wrong approach. So when we're asked to fill out employee surveys or dating profiles, we often choose not to answer embarrassing questions. But it turns out, we underestimate the effect this has on other people's opinions of us. In one experiment, John and her colleagues asked people to choose between two prospective dating partners. One of them declines to answer whether he or she has ever hidden a sexually transmitted disease from a dating partner. This person is called a withholder because he or she is withholding information. The other person reveals all kind of unsavory things about themselves, and volunteers are then asked which person they would prefer to date. Here's John.

LESLIE JOHN: One of the prospective dates, the revealer, has given the worst possible answer to each of the questions, has said that they frequently cheat on their tax return. They frequently file false insurance claims. And what we find (laughter), again and again, is that people tend to prefer the revealer. Sixty-four percent of people chose to date the revealer over the withholder.

KELLY: Wow. So what's going on here? People know that somebody is cheating on their tax return, that they're a scoundrel. But - what? - at least they're being upfront about it?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And in fact, this is not just true in dating contexts. In job contexts, John and her colleagues find that volunteers say they prefer prospective candidates who admit to having received failing grades in school over candidates who declined to say what their worst grade was. Now, the interesting thing is just because someone withholds information, it doesn't automatically mean they're guilty or they've done something wrong. But we have a stronger aversion to people who withhold information because they feel untrustworthy. You know, Mary Louise, as I was interviewing Leslie John, I realized her research might actually have bigger implications than dating and job interviews. I asked her if her research might have implications in politics, even the ongoing presidential race.

KELLY: All right, so we're talking about being forthright, speaking your mind. Let me go, wildly, out on a limb and...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Guess you asked about Donald Trump.

VEDANTAM: I did indeed. I asked her whether the attraction of Trump, for many Republican voters, might have to do with the fact that he seems unfiltered and unguarded. John told me she wasn't personally a Trump supporter and there were likely many factors behind his popularity among GOP voters, but she said there might be a condition between his forthrightness and his popularity.

JOHN: I think one of the reasons why he might be so alluring is because he's a straight shooter. He seems to speak his mind. And this is something that is perhaps seen as refreshing and very authentic relative to the sort of guarded, very scripted answers and statements that we typically get from politicians.

KELLY: Stay with politics for a second, Shankar, because I'm wondering if there are other politicians that you see this applying to on the Democratic side. Do you see applications for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?

VEDANTAM: I would argue the same thing is true for Bernie Sanders. He seems unvarnished, unguarded, unfiltered.

KELLY: Unscripted.

VEDANTAM: Unscripted. I think that's part of his appeal for Democratic voters. When you feel that what you see is what you get, you might not always like it, but it's often more comfortable than not being sure with what exactly you're getting.

KELLY: OK, our science and political hit all in one stop. Thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's always forthright, only occasionally scoundrel-y social science correspondent. You know it's true. He also hosts a podcast that explores the unseen patterns of human behavior. It's called, Hidden Brain.

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