A Holiday Tradition: Family Secrets
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A lot of ingredients go into cooking up a traditional Thanksgiving Day: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole - you know the one - football and family, of course, who all arrive with their delightful quirks and loads of baggage - duffle bags, Pack n Play, suitcases and secrets - yes, secrets.
Today, as millions of Americans celebrate with their loved ones around the Thanksgiving table, much will be said and perhaps even more left unsaid. This hour, we're going to delve into the mystery of secrets. Why do we keep them? Are they healthy or harmful? We'll talk with Frank Warren, creator of the Web site PostSecret, about the thousands of secrets strangers have mailed to him over the past couple of years. We'll also talk with Harvard Professor Dan Wegner about the psychology of secrets. Does keeping a secret stress the mind, and how does it keep one?
If you have a secret, why are you holding on to it? Or if you have a good story about a secret spilled perhaps after one glass too many of holiday punch, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
Later in the program, a modest proposal. Should we ditch our traffic signs and stoplights for the good of mankind?
But first, secrets. Our first guest is an expert on secrets, a reader and keeper of secrets. Frank Warren is the author of the books "PostSecret" and "My Secret." He joins us form the BBC studios in London. Nice to have you from far afield here on this Thanksgiving Day.
Mr. FRANK WARREN (PostSecret.com): Well, it's good to be there.
CONAN: What kinds of Thanksgiving secrets are posted on your Web sites today?
Mr. WARREN: I actually have one on the Web site today that says my grandmother's cooking sucks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: There's another one that I saw that had - it might have not been not from today, but it had a picture of, you know, a turkey with all the trimmings, and around the edge it was written, handwritten, we only come out of guilt.
Mr. WARREN: Yeah. I think a lot of the secrets I receive express, you know, politically incorrect thoughts, or they kind of reflect the full diversity of what we keep inside of us but not always express.
CONAN: Uh-huh. Are those typical of the kinds of secrets people share with you?
Mr. WARREN: I get all kinds of secrets. I get between 100 and 200 postcards every day with secrets written on them from around the world, and they surprise me every day. And they really for me reveal our full diversity and complexity as human beings. They've funny, they're sexual, they're remorseful, they're joyful. Anything you can imagine, I've read it in secret form.
CONAN: Now, what have you learned about secrets after reading all of these?
Mr. WARREN: One of the things I've learned is that sometimes when we think we're keeping a secret, that secret's actually keeping us. And it can separate us from people we love, it can separate us from our past. It can affect our relationships. It can affect how we feel about ourselves. And I think sometimes facing our secrets is one of the ways that we can learn more about ourselves and really become more whole as people.
CONAN: So secrets we keep from ourselves.
Mr. WARREN: Yeah. There are the secrets that we keep from other people and the larger ones, I think, sometimes that we keep from ourselves.
CONAN: Give us a for instance of a secret you keep from yourself.
Mr. WARREN: Well, maybe you're a student and you've worked all your life to get into an Ivy League school, and now that you're there, you're not as satisfied as you thought you would be. And that's something I think that's difficult to admit to yourself or to a family member or even to a friend.
CONAN: Yeah. There was one in a lighter vein I saw that - I've cheated in every single round of golf I've ever played.
Mr. WARREN: That's not yours, is it?
CONAN: No, no, it's not mine. That's not mine. I've only played one round of gold, and believe me, I did cheat, so it would qualify.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Those we keep from other people, though, they may not be quite as secret as we think they are.
Mr. WARREN: I think that's right. Sometimes when we think we're keeping a secret and we're not telling it to our friends and family, they might actually know what it is and just not mention it because they think it'll make us uncomfortable.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about the Starbucks secret.
Mr. WARREN: I received a postcard, I guess you could call it a postcard. It was actually a Starbucks cup with a stamp and my home address on it. And somebody had written on the cup, I give decaf to customers who are rude to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Yeah, okay. That's - you know, there are always, though, family secrets, and I wonder, can you divide out, you know, how many of the - what percentage of the stuff you get is family secrets?
Mr. WARREN: I think secrets by nature can be very complex, and one of the reasons I think we keep secrets is because they can be feelings or thoughts or emotions about family members or about friends. And if you're keeping a secret, and it's about your family member, well, it's difficult to share that one. And so sometimes I think people who mail me secrets and the secrets I post on the Web site at PostSecret.com are secrets that people have felt like they could share with me because I'm trying to provide a safe, non-judgmental place where people can share their secrets without a social cost that they might get if they were to reveal it to a friend or a family member.
CONAN: And there might be a social benefit, that first glimmering of admission of a secret, one of those you might have been keeping from yourself even.
Mr. WARREN: I like to hope so. I get e-mails from people who've mailed me secrets, and one of the things they say is that for them, facing a secret on a postcard and then releasing it to a stranger, they've found that therapeutic. They've found a sense of healing in that. And sometimes I think people send me a secret as their first step down a journey of reconciling with a part of themselves that has been difficult to face.
Mr. WARREN: If you have a secret you've been keeping - why? And if you've had a good secret spilled at the Thanksgiving dinner table, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Peter. Peter's with us from Berkeley, California.
PETER (Caller): Hi. I wanted to call up and just - kind of on behalf of a lot of families, I believe, just mention that covering up for alcohol and drug abuse must be one of the biggest, most damaging secret patterns, don't you think? I just - it can be very difficult, especially on children and young adults.
CONAN: Frank Warren?
Mr. WARREN: I think that's very true. I think families have all kinds of secrets. I think some secrets are probably good to keep, but I think there are others that children probably know about in one sense or another, even though they've never been discussed. And sometimes just the covering up of those secrets, the stress that we go through to keep them secret, is the most unhealthiest part of them.
CONAN: The elephant-in-the-room secret.
Mr. WARREN: That's right.
CONAN: Peter, I wish you Happy Thanksgiving and hope that all of your secrets are open ones.
PETER: And let's hope for a lot of sobriety and clarity and joy - natural joy - in the world.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get - this is Missy. Missy's calling us from Reno, Nevada.
MISSY (Caller): Hi there.
MISSY: Thanks for taking my call.
MISSY: I just wanted to let you know that secrets in our family are big on both sides. On my mother's side, my grandmother doesn't know who her father was, and her mother would never come clean about it, but everyone knew that she wasn't the daughter of the father of all of the other kids. And then on my dad's side, my dad doesn't know who his dad is, and my grandmother got Alzheimer's. My grandmother, my dad's mom, has Alzheimer's, and we thought that it may be safe to ask her now because, you know, she didn't have much to lose, and she still wouldn't tell us. It was just taboo. We're not talking about that.
CONAN: That's interesting. Frank Warren, you're of course the recipient of people who want to tell secrets, but as Missy reminds us, there are a lot of people who don't.
Mr. WARREN: I think that's true. I think also that secrets are viewed differently from people in different generations. I think young people are more open to discuss their secrets and share private parts of themselves with others, but I think people from different generations feel differently about that, and that might be because during the times when they were growing up, maybe the country required more from them, and so they had to kind of buck up a little bit and not share some of these feeling that they were feeling but just move forward and take the action that needed to be taken at the time.
MISSY: I think that that's true as far as the generational factor, but there was some hanky-panky on both sides in my family and nobody wants to talk about it.
CONAN: Well, I'm sure that stopped with your generation, Missy, no hanky-panky whatsoever.
MISSY: I'm a straight arrow.
CONAN: Absolutely. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
MISSY: Happy Thanksgiving.
CONAN: Bye bye.
MISSY: Bye bye.
CONAN: Our next guest studies how we keep secrets and how they affect us. Dan Wegner is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts." He joins us today from Tampa, Florida, and thanks very much for taking time out of your Thanksgiving to be with us.
Professor DAN WEGNER (Harvard University): Glad to join you.
CONAN: Do all of us have secrets?
Prof. WEGNER: I think pretty much everyone. Generally it's kind of a talent we develop as we grow up. Little kids are notoriously poor at keeping secrets. You never want to tell a seven-year-old about the surprise birthday party that's coming up. But as we get older we all find that there's probably something rather that would be better left unsaid, and so we unsay it.
CONAN: And then we keep on saying it and keep on saying it.
Prof. WEGNER: True. True.
CONAN: I wonder. Holidays, Thanksgiving - is that as particularly stressful time for people with secrets, do you think?
Prof. WEGNER: Well, one of the things that makes a secret particularly stressful is when we're around people that it's a secret from. And on holidays, when we're around family, if there is that elephant in the room, that's precisely the time when we can get stressed. We worry that it might enter into our thoughts. It might somehow pop up in something we say or in a certain look we have and we have to keep these things exactly when the audience is there.
CONAN: Don't we all sort of suffer from the, you know, post tell-tale heart syndrome? If we're thinking this secret, how can they not hear the heart beating beneath the floor? How can they not read my mind and know what I'm thinking about?
Prof. WEGNER: Of course. And I think what happens is we actually try not to think about it. And the problem there is that that is exactly the strategy that's going to make us most obsessed with it. One of the things we've done in our laboratory for several years is ask people to try not to think about things. And for example, if you have somebody just sit and talk into a tape recorder as they're not to think about a white bear, don't mention it for about once per minute for as long as you want to have them talk.
CONAN: Really, the white bear will come in no matter how much you try and not to talk about the white bear?
Prof. WEGNER: Precisely. Even though you would never have thought about it before in your life, the task of trying not to think about it suddenly makes it loom large.
CONAN: Do they get around it by saying polar bear?
Prof. WEGNER: They'll try that, but that reminds them of white bear and it comes right back.
CONAN: So in other words, we may think we're fooling our mind, but not so easy?
Prof. WEGNER: Right. And so when you keep a secret, you're trying to suppress the thought. You put yourself in precisely that situation. You become preoccupied with the very thing that you're trying to keep others to - others from knowing.
CONAN: Uh-huh. So stay away from that second glass of wine, I think is what I'm hearing.
Prof. WEGNER: Well, that's one of the burdens of thought suppression, is that when we're stressed or distracted - or the term psychologists use is we are given a cognitive load, but I guess you could call it something else with the second glass of wine.
CONAN: Yes indeed.
Prof. WEGNER: A different sort of load. That's when the secrets generally pop right out.
CONAN: Stay with us, Dan Wegner, and also Frank Warren. We're going to continue talking about the secrets we keep and sometimes spill, particularly on the holidays, and take more of your calls, 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about secrets, why we keep them, how we keep them and what happens when we let them go. Our guests are Frank Warren, he's editor of "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives" and the new book "My Secret"; also Dan Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University, author of "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts." And we want to hear about the secrets you keep and why you keep them, or if there's a not-so-secret story of somebody who spilled the beans at Thanksgiving dinner, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I remember one year at my aunt's house after Thanksgiving, we all sat back after dessert when she announced that our little cousin Duffy had spat into the cake. Anyway, a small secret there.
Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Nathan. Nathan calling from Phoenix.
NATHAN (Caller): Yes. Kind of going back to the white elephant in the room, I have brothers and sisters that are much younger. And I came out as being gay about five years ago and my parents haven't really discussed it with them. And kind of days like today kind of bring that back up, that there is that white elephant that my younger brothers and sisters don't know about. And you know, it makes it difficult to talk about relationships and things that I am doing in my life without kind of spilling the beans to them and bringing up that uncomfortable conversation that my parents have to have with them.
CONAN: Yeah. And there's, you know, you can think of thousand questions, you're - I don't know what the ages of your siblings are, but a 12-year-old girl might ask that would just be, you know, lead you down all sorts of paths that you don't want to take.
NATHAN: Exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah. Dan Wegner, I think Nathan certainly not the only one with this kind of a problem.
Prof. WEGNER: No. It's pretty common. I think one of the reasons that sometimes our conversations with relatives in these situations tend to drift to really important things like the weather, or what's on TV, or because it's so difficult to distract ourselves from those unwanted thoughts, the things that we would really love to be thinking about but we can't. So we tend to distract ourselves with the second best thought. And the second best thought sometimes isn't all that exciting. It tends to be, gee, what's the weather going to be tomorrow?
CONAN: Nathan, I wonder, in a way, before you came out, you were leading a bit of a secret life, at least secret to some people. And then you...
NATHAN: Oh boy.
CONAN: And then you came out and you're still in a way leading a secret life. It's just sort of been reversed.
NATHAN: Right. And I know a lot of my friends that, you know, other gay people are in the same situation where it's because it is uncomfortable for people to talk about. It's kind of how do you breach the topic with people who aren't as understanding. So...
CONAN: Well, Nathan, good luck...
NATHAN: Oh, well. Thanks.
CONAN: ...and happy Thanksgiving.
NATHAN: Happy Thanksgiving.
CONAN: Appreciate it. I wonder, Frank Warren, the postcards that you get, are second lives a part of that?
Mr. WARREN: I think so. I think sometimes the secret life is our rich interior life, and sometimes the life that we're living is more socially acceptable. And I kind of picture people as wearing social masks a lot of the times. And I think sometimes confessing or moving that social mask is a way that we can make a healthier change in our life and maybe feel more holistic and more integrated as individuals.
CONAN: A secret identity, if you will. I mean, I'm not this mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. I'm really somebody special.
Mr. WARREN: Well, I have a lot of postcards that kind of reveal lives like that. I received one a while back. It was a postcard with an image of the Twin Towers on it. And the secret read, everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead.
CONAN: Wow. I wonder, secret lives, Dan Wegner, those are about the biggest secrets you can have.
Prof. WEGNER: Well, I think one of the most common kinds of secret lives that people have is a secret relationship. If you are seeing someone on the side or if you are even infatuated with someone and you are actually in a relationship, you're trying to keep that from your main person. And that can be a common enough occurrence that it shows up in a lot of people's descriptions of their own inner lives. One of the findings we've come across in our studies is that oftentimes people describe their secret relationships as being more important to them because of the tendency to keep thinking about them all the time. It's a the tendency of become pre-occupied with secrets.
We did a little study a few years ago in which we actually introduced people who had never met before in the laboratory and had them sit at a table with a group of other people and play a game. And in some cases we had these unacquainted couples, a male and female, play footsy underneath the table. At least we didn't tell them that. We said we'd like you touch feet under the table in order to influence the way the game is going.
CONAN: You didn't use the footsy word.
Prof. WEGNER: We didn't use the footsy word, but that's in fact what they were doing.
Prof. WEGNER: And for some of the couples in the situation, that was the entire instruction. For others we explained to them that the other people at the table knew that this was going on. And so after this was over, we took people into separate rooms and individually asked them to rate how attracted they were everyone at the table. And what we found was the couples who had been induced to play footsy and who kept it secret from others at the table were the ones who found each other most attractive.
Prof. WEGNER: So there's something about keeping a relationship secret that adds an extra allure, a bit of - I think this obsession enters mind and you mistake the obsession for attraction.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ron. Ron with us from Portland, Oregon.
RON (Caller): Oh, hello?
CONAN: Hello, Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RON: Yes. And had a secret - I'm a twin and we ran a marathon and we fudged, we cheated a little bit. I ran the first half. He ran the second half. It was one where you had Olympic qualifying time, and after - I felt a little guilty about that, and still after the - about 30 years later.
CONAN: Thirty years. Have you ever told anybody?
RON: No, just a couple of friends. In fact, the gentleman who sort engineered this for us was an attorney in Monterey. It was the San Francisco Marathon. But one of us did one half and then dipped down into the underbrush, the under-story, and the other one was waiting there, took his jersey and...
RON: ...race number and finished up in a mighty fine time.
CONAN: And were you invited to try the same trick at the Helsinki, the Olympics? Or...
RON: Well, it was a time that would have actually qualified one to go to the trials, the American trials. And - but we did not follow up on that. Actually, we felt somewhat guilty about keeping the trophy for having finished so well.
CONAN: You kept the trophy.
RON: So every time I see that trophy, I think, well...
RON: Sharing the same event, well, it's a little iffy in terms of the truth.
CONAN: Well, Ron, we hope you're not featuring the trophy as the centerpiece at you Thanksgiving dinner today.
RON: Oh, probably not.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Bye bye.
Frank Warren, I think Ron's secret is - I've seen your blog and there are a lot of things like that.
Mr. WARREN: I think so. I've actually received quite a few secrets from twins. I think twins keep some very juicy secrets sometimes. But he also mentioned that he'd been keeping it for, what, 30 years? And for me, the most poignant secrets I received are the ones that do come from older folks who've carried secrets sometimes since their early childhood. And those are the ones that really affect me the most.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Laura in Salt Lake City, Utah.
I wonder what the perspective is on secrets versus privacy. The word secret seems to have a negative connotation, something that's hidden that perhaps shouldn't be, whereas privacy has a more honorable connotation, something we each have a right to. Is it just semantics or is there a real difference in the intention behind keeping something private versus keeping something secret?
Dan Wegner, what do you think?
Prof. WEGNER: Well, there's a moral dimension to secrecy. A secret is a kind of lie. And just keeping something private, failing to inform somebody about something typically doesn't have to be a secret. A secret is a moral affront of some kind to the person who it's being kept from because part of the definition of a secret is that somebody cares who's not being told. So it's really a lie, but it's a lie of omission and it hurts the person that it's a secret from.
CONAN: So just as bad as a lie of fact, of statement.
Prof. WEGNER: Exactly.
CONAN: All right. Let's see. We could to Ari. Ari's on the line with us from Los Angeles.
Hi, Ari, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ARI (Caller): Sorry about that. I'm a grad student down at UC San Diego in California and I'm currently looking for employment with the federal government in the intelligence community. And one of the fun parts about getting into the intelligence community is going through security clearance. And it's been a bit of an emotional experience, having the federal government trying its damnest to pick up all the secrets they can on me.
CONAN: Hmm. Yeah...
ARI: And I was just going to say, you know, emotionally, it's been very draining, trying to dig into my psyche and figure out, you know, what are my secrets, even, you know, some of the things that I don't even really think about anymore but could potentially be used, you know, five years down the line as a...
CONAN: To trip you up, yeah.
ARI: ...an intelligence employee.
CONAN: Yeah, and you do face the prospect at some point, I would think, of taking a lie detector test.
ARI: Yes, I have to take a polygraph, and that's especially, I guess, I don't want to say frightening, but bothersome, because, you know, having someone sit there and grill you for two hours while you've got, you know, three different machines hooked up to you and saying, you know, we know you're holding secrets, what are they, you know, and then having to figure out, well, am I holding secrets or, you know, am I in a state of denial that I didn't even know I was in a state of?
CONAN: Yeah, Dan Wegner, it seems interesting, I mean first of all, is it realistic for the Homeland Security or the CIA or anybody else to think that they're going to find out all of our secrets?
Prof. WEGNER: I'm not sure that anybody knows how to find what's going on in the secret parts of a human mind. This is certainly the long-term desire of certain kinds of psychotherapy, is to help people uncover secrets.
Now, it turns out that some kinds of searching for secrets can find more than what's there. Now, if a really good interrogator working for a government agency suggests to you that you have some things in your past and they keep suggesting it long enough and hard enough, there's a proportion of people who will go ahead and agree, even though the events didn't ever happen.
So there are - the worry that we might have a secret can sometimes be profound enough that we start thinking, yes, maybe I did sweep it under the rug. Maybe I somehow forgot.
CONAN: Hmm. And Ari, the same point. I mean you're going back in your memory to, oh my God, did I shoplift a candy bar when I was six years old?
ARI: Exactly. You know, I've been sitting here pretty much journaling everything I've ever done since I can actually remember. And you know, everything from downloading MP3's when I was an undergraduate to, you know, having a crush on someone while I was in a relationship and, you know, asking myself, is this something that could come up in a security clearance. And it's been an interesting experience finding out what are my secrets, actually.
CONAN: Well, Ari, good luck, and we hope that overeating on Thanksgiving does not come up in the lie detector test.
ARI: Thank you very much. Have a good Thanksgiving.
CONAN: You too.
Here's an e-mail we got from Tori from Michigan. It came out a family Christmas party that a cousin slept with her mom's boyfriend, which made for a very tense, if not interesting, night.
We're talking about secrets today with Frank Warren, editor of "PostSecret: The Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives," and with Dan Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's to go to Mark. Mark with us from Cincinnati.
MARK (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Hi, I'm good. Thanks.
MARK: You know, the more you talk about it, this, I mean, you can go all day with this. This is interesting.
CONAN: We were hoping.
MARK: But one of the things is, secrets are, you know, it's like a powerful thing, too. That's why I think that people use it. It's like I was talking to this screener or something. It's like kids, you start at a very early age saying, you know, like, I got a secret on you.
MARK: That type of thing where it mushrooms into, you know, nations trying to find, like you were talking about earlier, nations trying to find out other secrets. It's like a leg-up.
You know, like you know something about somebody or something or some country and that's a powerful thing. The other powerful thing on it is a protection tool, as, you know, I got this secret on you so you don't, you know...
CONAN: Oh, so don't - you better not say anything about me. I've got something on...
MARK: Yeah, you don't say anything about me...
CONAN: ...oh, I see.
MARK: ...because I have this secret on you.
CONAN: All part of the power game. Frank Warren, is secrecy powerful?
Mr. WARREN: I think there is a lot of power that can be found in secrets - in keeping them, but also in revealing them.
MARK: Yeah, in...
Mr. WARREN: I received a...
MARK: ...yeah, also, which is just - oh, you could just go all day on this thing, you know.
CONAN: Revealing them, Frank Warren?
Mr. WARREN: Yeah, I received an e-mail message from somebody not long ago about participating in the project, and the person wrote, I've made six postcards all with secrets that I was afraid to tell the one person I tell everything to: my boyfriend. This morning I planned to mail them to you but instead I left them on the pillow next to his head while he was sleeping. Ten minutes ago, he arrived at my office and asked me to marry him. I said yes.
CONAN: Aah, that's nice.
Mr. WARREN: So there's something about secrets, too. I think when we share them with people, we can really develop deeper channels of intimacy.
CONAN: But let's ask the professor of psychology about this power thing. Dan Wegner, secrecy is power, isn't it?
Prof. WEGNER: Yeah, it certainly is. There's a sense in which one person having a secret in front of another is somehow the winner. Information is generally a matter of power, and we can hold power over each other. I think the point that Frank Warren keeps bringing up - and I really wanted to point out the agreement of research with this - he suggests that revealing secrets is often a therapeutic and a helpful thing to do. So even if we do have this secret on our minds, the chance to say it to somebody, even to say it to ourselves, to be able to reveal it into a tape recorder or our diary or journal or somehow let it be known, ideally to a trusted confidante, is something that's going to help us psychologically.
CONAN: Well, Mark, are you going to spill a secret here on the radio for everybody? Mark is either being very quiet or he's hung up the phone to listen to other people's secrets. It's probably a wise policy. I thank him for the call and we wish him a Happy Thanksgiving.
We're going to take a short break and when we come back, more about the secrets we keep and why we keep them. Plus, we'll present a modest proposal, that we take down all the traffic signs and make roads and sidewalks shared space. If you want to get in on that conversation, give us a phone call. Our number is 800-989-8255; that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. A couple of places in Europe and even here in this country are experimenting with this idea of naked streets - no speed limits, no stop signs, no traffic lights. Would it work where you live or unleash anarchy and road rage?
I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. You're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: Today we're talking about family secrets, why we keep them and the ways they tend to come out. Our guests are Frank Warren, editor of "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives" and the new book called "My Secret." Also with us, Dan Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts."
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Celine. Celine with us from Monterey, California.
CELINE (Caller): Hi.
CELINE: I was attacked by the big white bear.
CONAN: You were?
CONAN: How did it manifest itself?
CELINE: About 12 years ago, when my husband, my current husband, was just my boyfriend and he was in Europe and I was here in California, I was having a relationship with somebody else. And when he called me one evening, I was so preoccupied with sounding normal...
CELINE: ...that I called him by my other lover's name.
CONAN: Oh, so you blurted out Bruce by mistake or whatever it was?
CELINE: Actually it was Tom, and then I had to backpedal and I said that I said Mom instead of Tom.
CONAN: Ooh, did that work?
CELINE: No, it didn't.
CONAN: I didn't think so.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CELINE: It didn't work at all. But we never talked about it after that and we are now married and have two children. So I guess some secrets just kind of float out into the atmosphere.
CONAN: Uh-huh. But you never went beyond explaining it was really Mom and not Tom.
CONAN: Well, have you talked about it subsequently? I mean, after the birth of two children, is this now safe?
CELINE: No, we have never talked about it. But he's on the road somewhere in the car and he may well be listening now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, is Celine your real name?
CONAN: Is Celine your real name? Or...
CELINE: It is absolutely my real name, so I'm not keeping any secrets.
CONAN: Right. Celine, congratulations, and we hope even though you're separated from your husband today that you both have a Happy Thanksgiving.
CELINE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.
And Dan Wegner, I suspect the elephant in the room that she's talking about, that verifies your theory.
Prof. WEGNER: Oh, this is a great example of how secrets really dwell on the mind. We actually did an experiment that produced a very similar kind of result. We had people sit at a computer and they were asked to watch as a series of words appeared on the computer screen. And they were to press one button if a word appeared in the color red and another color - another button if it appeared in the color blue. And normally we are pretty good at this kind of thing. And what you find is, if you ask the person also to keep something a secret at the time, and if you play that word on the screen, they're much slower in naming the color.
Prof. WEGNER: It's as though the word pops to mind before the color does and it kind of lurches and they're unable to name the color as quickly. The same thing happens if your own name appears on the screen. But we find that we can make this happen in a matter of minutes just by saying keep this word secret from the experimenter. Suddenly everything else is slow because that word jumps to mind so quickly.
CONAN: And I wonder, I know that there have been experiments with brain scans of various sorts to see if they can detect our brains going to the effort of lying, and it sounds as if, at least from your experiments, there could be possibilities in that.
Prof. WEGNER: Certainly it does. There are a number of studies now on what the brain is doing when we are suppressing thoughts. And they indicate that one part of the brain is kind of looking for unwanted thoughts even while we're trying not to think about them.
CONAN: Hmm. And I wanted to talk a little bit more with Frank Warren about the postcards you get and, again, obviously the president calling the troops, we think that Vice President Cheney may be in Baghdad as well. You get cards from soldiers and their families. What do they say?
Mr. WARREN: I do. I invited people to mail their secrets on postcards to me about two years ago. And since then I've received over 80,000 from around the world. And I asked people to mail them to me anonymously and also to include artwork on the postcard that I think further can express their secret in ways that they might not feel comfortable expressing in words.
And I've received, sure, postcards from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from soldiers' families. And usually what they do is they express sentiments that we don't commonly hear.
CONAN: Such as?
Mr. WARREN: A postcard from Iraq saying I'm glad I'm here, I don't want to come back.
Mr. WARREN: A postcard from the States talking about a husband who's away in Iraq and expressing the thought or the feeling that things are easier now that he's away, and I'm not sure how things are going to work when he returns.
CONAN: If people wanted to take a look at the blog that posts your postcards, how would they get there?
Mr. WARREN: It's www.postsecret.com.
CONAN: And there's also the books, "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives," and a new version, "My Secret." Frank Warren, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. WARREN: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Frank Warren, who joined us today from the studios of the BBC in London.
Dan Wegner, appreciate your time, too.
Prof. WEGNER: Thank you.
CONAN: Dan Wegner, the professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts." Thinking about unwanted thoughts: driving into a town you've never been in and seeing no traffic signs - that after this.
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