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What Happens When We Don’t Tell


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When asked a direct question about something potentially embarrassing, is it best to tell the truth or to withhold information?

The findings on this matter by Leslie K. John, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, are enlightening. They match what many of us, on a gut level, know to be true but often find difficult to practice. John’s research, via a series of 7 compromising scenarios, divides folks into “revealers” and “hiders.”

Down the line, revealers fared better than hiders. They did so in startling ways.

Consider a job interview situation. Research participants were made to choose between two candidates who were asked, “What is the lowest grade you ever received on a final exam in school?” The hider checked “choose not to answer” while the revealer indicated a grade of F.

The researchers found that 89% of participants would hire the revealer over the hider, even though when asked, they guessed the numerical grade of the hider was likely higher than that of the revealer.

How about a dating scenario?

126 participants were asked to choose who they would rather date based on two potential candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that included items such as “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from?” and “Have you ever had a fantasy about doing something terrible (i.e. torturing) to somebody?”

John found that 64% of people said they would rather date someone who responded “frequently” to those questions; just 36% said they would rather date the person who checked “choose not to answer.”  

“That, to me, is crazy,” John said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. “The preference for someone who divulges information is so strong that people actually prefer someone that they know has the worst values as an attribute over someone who only in the worst-case scenario is that bad.”

We yearn for folks who seem to be telling the truth, even if the truth isn’t pretty.

John’s research examines situations in which we are asked a direct question. The implications of her findings, however, transcend this narrow construct. No, it doesn’t behoove us to run around and indiscriminately self-disclose. But it is imperative that we remain mindful of the implications of not disclosing. In case of doubt, tell the truth.

  • When you’re having a difficult conversation with someone, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re facing a tough work challenge, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re not up to performing a certain task, consider telling the truth.
  • When you’re asked to state your opinion, tell the truth.

If truth involves thoughts about another person, tell the truth without hurting the other. But be a revealer, even if what you are revealing creates a bit of discomfort for you. Considered self-revelation is a WIN. It makes us more appealing. It makes us more trustworthy. Hiding gets us nowhere.

“When people are forming an opinion of you and you care about that opinion, you may be prone to withholding information,” John elaborates. “But in fact, you would make a better impression if you came clean and divulge it.” 

Divulge. Deep down, telling the truth feels so much better anyway, doesn’t it?

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