Most people know that hiding something from others can cause internal angst, but new research suggests the consequences go far beyond emotional strife: Having to conceal information about oneself (e.g., sexual orientation) during an interaction disrupts one’s intellectual acuity, physical strength, and interpersonal grace—skills and abilities that are critical to workplace success.
“With no federal protection for gays and lesbians in the workplace, our work suggests that the wisdom of non-discrimination laws should be debated not merely through a moral lens, but with an appreciation for the loss of economic productivity that such vulnerabilities produce,” says Clayton Critcher, a member of the Haas Marketing Group, who conducts research on consumer behavior and social psychology, including questions of self and identity.
Critcher’s paper, “The Cost of Keeping it Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes it Depleting,” forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, details multiple negative consequences of concealment. Concealment produces deficits because of the difficulty of having to constantly monitor one’s speech for secret-revealing content that needs to be edited out, says Critcher, who co-authored the article with Melissa Ferguson of Cornell University.
The researchers conducted four studies, each of which was a variation on a single paradigm. When participants arrived at the study, they learned they would be taking part in an interview. Following a rigged drawing, all participants learned they were assigned to be an interviewee. Another supposed participant—who, in reality, was an actor hired by the researchers—was the interviewer.
Some participants were given special instructions about what they could reveal in the interview. In three of the four studies, some participants were told they should make sure not to reveal their sexual orientation while answering the questions. For example, participants were told that in answering questions, instead of saying “I tend to date men who …,” the participants could say, “I tend to date people who ….”
After the interview, participants thought they were moving on to an unrelated study. In actuality, this second part of the experiment was related, offering researchers the opportunity to measure whether participants’ intellectual, physical, or interpersonal skills were degraded by concealment. The studies revealed a variety of negative effects of concealment.
In one study, participants completed a measure of spatial intelligence that was modeled after military aptitude tests. Participants randomly assigned to conceal their sexual orientation performed 17 percent worse than those who went through the interview without instructions to conceal. In another experiment, participants tasked with hiding their sexual orientation exhibited reduced physical stamina, squeezing an exercise handgrip for 20 percent less time than those in a control condition. Another study revealed that concealment led people to show less interpersonal restraint. After having to conceal their sexual orientation, participants responded to a “snarky” email from a superior with more anger than politeness. During another test, participants demonstrated poorer performance on a “Stroop task,” a commonly used measure of executive cognitive function. In all cases, the willpower necessary to conceal sexual orientation left people with fewer resources to perform well on other tasks.
In some studies, the researchers varied whether the interview questions focused on participants’ personal or dating life, or on topics for which one’s sexual orientation would never be revealed. Concealment caused similarly sharp declines in both cases. “Environments that explicitly or implicitly encourage people to conceal their sexual orientation—even when employers adopt a ‘Don’t Ask’ policy by not directly inquiring about employees’ sexual orientation—may significantly harm workers,” says Critcher.
“Establishing a workplace climate that encourages openness by supporting diversity may be one of the easiest ways to enhance workplace productivity.”