Almost everyone can recall a time when they said something they later regretted. Most often it leads to embarrassment or guilt, though the episode might be quickly forgotten.
At the other extreme, however, disclosing information inappropriately may have serious consequences.
Just think of the CEO of apparel company Abercrombie and Fitch whose comments from 2006 that the brand doesn’t target “unattractive” or “not so cool” kids, resurfaced to hurt the company’s reputation in 2013.
And there are countless examples of politicians disclosing something inappropriately that landed them in hot water.
Most of us assume we have almost full control over what we say, but how much control do we really have?
Saying the wrong thing can harm relationships, jeopardise trust and damage one’s character, and although we may do our best to control what comes out of our mouths, it seems we’re not always successful.
Which begs the question: under what conditions might we lose control over what we say?
We conducted multiple experiments over a three-year period, and found consistent evidence suggesting that arousal is a major contributor to disclosing information that we might not otherwise have disclosed.
So what is arousal, and why does it cause people to say things they later regret?
Essentially arousal is the degree to which an individual is awake and alert. Intuitively, you could assume that being awake and alert might increase rather than decrease the accuracy of what we say, but this appears not to be the case.
Arousal actually uses up our so-called ‘cognitive resources’ – basically our brain power. It means that during arousal we have less conscious cognitive resources available for controlling what comes out of our mouths, causing our minds default to more automatic, and seemingly less considered, responses.
Information that we’re usually careful about disclosing, like secrets and very personal information, are more likely to be disclosed when we default to more automatic responses; mainly because they require some degree of effort to conceal.
Information that requires effort to conceal falls into the category of what we call a ‘dominant response’.
Arousal is known to activate a dominant response, which increases the likelihood that the information we let slip will be information that we usually take efforts to conceal.
In our first experiment, we asked 86 participants to write dating profiles.
We induces arousal (or stress) with half the participants, telling them they would have to do a challenging maths test afterwards, generating a sense of anxiety.
We found that aroused group disclosed more embarrassing, emotional, intimate and even incriminating information on their dating profiles than those who were relatively relaxed.
And just in case you think that being completely upfront is a good strategy when seeking a date, a post-hoc study on the same data found that people evaluating the aroused profiles preferred to people who didn’t disclose overly personal information.
In our second experiment, involving 160 participants, we examined online trolling behaviour.
We found that when people are made nervous by exposure to selected pictures under the International Affective Picture System (these are pictures that provide emotional stimuli for experimental research), they were more likely to disclose times when they said mean or malicious things to others online.
The results suggest that arousal increases the disclosure of information that people don’t normally like to reveal, and relaxed people are better at concealing information and keeping secrets.
In our third study, we had 169 participants jog on the spot for 60 seconds. We found that these participants were more likely to share embarrassing stories – or open up to others – after physical exercise.
Usually, people might disclose personal information like this to people that are close to them, but it seems we are more likely to open up to strangers when aroused, particularly by physical exercise.
So, what are some of the ways that we can lessen the chances of disclosing information inappropriately, and increase control over what we say?
Obviously, it seems that lowering arousal is key.
The problem is that the times when we ought to be careful with what we say — like during job interviews, media engagements, important work meetings or romantic encounters — are often arousing, and it isn’t easy to remain calm and relaxed.
But we can take steps to control and lower our stress levels and, as a result, our arousal. Techniques like consciously controlling your breathing, and listening to chilled music have been known to help.
More traditional advice, like reducing how much coffee you drink, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep each night should also be helpful. Most medical professionals would probably agree that these fundamental life changes do help to reduce stress.
So, making healthy changes to your life might not only be good for your body, it might also be good for your self-control, helping you to keep your sensitive personal information to yourself.