When’s the last time you shied away from a probing interview question because you thought you’d be oversharing or potentially embarrassing yourself?
Good news: Chances are, potential employers might actually see you in a more positive light if you share that info than if you withhold it, at least according to a four-part study from Harvard Business School researchers Leslie John, Kate Barasz, and Michael Norton and highlighted in a recent NPR story from science correspondent Shankar Vendantam. And their findings don’t just apply to job interviews: The research suggests that potential dates, too, prefer people who share personal information over those who try to hide it.
The study authors embarked on a journey to explore how hiding vs. revealing (even potentially embarrassing) information about ourselves in a professional or romantic context can influence how others see us.
What they found was that when others can tell we might be hiding something — or at least not telling the full truth — they tend to perceive us as less trustworthy than people who reveal more about themselves. Study authors called these people the “hiders,” while they labelled those who shared more “revealers.”
Even when the revealers admitted things most of us would consider embarrassing or negative, like sharing that they got the lowest possible score on an exam or that they once failed to tell a partner that they had an STD, the people with whom they were sharing that information tended to choose them over the “hiders.”
For their study, the researchers actually did four variations on two experiments:
First, they looked at how people’s dating preferences would be affected by prospective dates’ tendency to either hide or reveal personal information. They asked participants to choose between people who confirmed they’d frequently engaged in suspect behaviour (“revealers”) and people who’d simply chosen not to disclose this information (“hiders”). The researchers gave participants (the people who were screening their potential dates) two completed questionnaires from fake prospects — one from a “hider” and one from a “revealer.”
In the questionnaires, the fake prospects had answered how frequently they’d engaged in each of five “unsavoury” behaviours, like having a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone else using the scale: Never, once, sometimes, frequently, or choose not to answer. The revealer always answered all the questions but varied his or her responses, while the hider only answered three questions and chose not to answer two.
Overall, 79% of people chose to date the revealer when his or her answers varied from ‘never’ to ‘frequently’. Even when the revealer answered ‘frequently’ to all of the embarrassing questions, 64% of people preferred to date them over the hider. They tested several variations of this experiment by seeing how ‘revealers’ who unintentionally left questions blank would be perceived as well. Still, participants tended to choose the revealer (even if they’d accidentally failed to answer some questions) over the hider.
Interviewing for a job
Second, they looked at how the revealer vs. hider scenario might get played out in a job interview, testing whether or not people understood that choosing not to reveal information would be seen as negative. They told fake employees to imagine they were “filling out an application for a job they really want” and were asked to respond to the question; “Have you ever done drugs?” with either: Yes, no, or choose not to answer.
Researchers also randomly assigned them to either imagine that they smoke weed “frequently” (defined as smoking regularly “and occasionally using harder drugs”) or “occasionally.” Finally, researchers asked them to choose between answering yes (revealing) or picking “choose not to answer” (hiding).
Overall, the vast majority of the participants (71%) chose to withhold information about what drugs they’d used and how often they’d used them, suggesting that most of us think revealing potentially negative information would be perceived negatively and make prospective employers less likely to hire us. But guess what? The fake employers were more interested in hiring the people who’d answered ‘yes’ compared with the people who’d opted out of answering.
Other research backs up this idea: A meta-analysis from the American Psychological Association found that people who engage in what they called “intimate disclosures” tended to be liked more than those who disclose less about themselves. The same study also found that people tend to share more personal information with people whom they initially like and, perhaps most surprisingly, that people tend like others as a result of having shared personal information with them. And a 1997 study by State University of New York psychologist Arthur Aron — which was the subject of a recent viral article in The New York Times called “Questions that can make you fall in love with a stranger” — suggested that two people who were willing to feel more connected to each other could do so, even within a short time.
For his study, Aron separated two groups of people, then paired people up within their groups and had them chat with one another for 45 minutes. While the first group of pairs spent the 45 minutes engaging in small talk, the second group got a list of questions that gradually grew more intimate.
Not surprisingly, the pairs who asked the gradually more probing questions felt closer and more connected after the 45 minutes were up. Six months later, two of the participants (a tiny fraction of the original study group) even found themselves in love — an intriguing result, though not a significant one.
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