Say you're on a first date and it's going really well. Your only concern is that the attractive person across the table might discover your embarrassing secret.

Whether it's the fact that you're in treatment for a smelly foot fungus or out of a job after accidentally sleeping in until noon on the day of the big meeting, how should you handle your anxiety about letting this mortifying bit of information slip out? And what if you're not on a date, but instead at a job interview?

That's the subject of a fascinating recent story on NPR in which host Mary Louise Kelly and social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam speak to Harvard Business School's Leslie John about her research showing that oversharing often beats avoiding awkward subjects.

TMI often isn't.

John's team compared the reactions of other people when a person either confessed to something highly embarrassing or tried to hide the same secret, either in the context of a dating profile or a job interview. For example, they presented a potential match with either a dating profile where a person confesses to hiding a sexually transmitted infection in the past or one where the person avoids mentioning this fact. They also gauged responses to a job candidate who was frank about his history of lying on his tax returns versus a squeaky clean contender.

You'd think those that revealed indiscretions would do worse than those who covered up their past sins, but no. "What we find, again and again, is that people tend to prefer the revealer. Sixty-four percent of people chose to date the revealer over the withholder," reports John to laughter.

Your faults make you lovable.

Why would anyone prefer a confirmed tax cheat to an upright-seeming candidate who claims to have never so much as failed to dot a 'i' on their returns? It turns out that honesty (even if it reveals a few ugly warts) is more appealing than an overly polished presentation. Your secret might be embarrassing, but it's not nearly as bad as coming across as secretive.

"We have a stronger aversion to people who withhold information because they feel untrustworthy," reports Vedantam. The interview goes on to delve into the insight this research might provide in regards to the the current presidential race -- is seemingly unsavory Trump benefiting from his directness, the same way the "revealers" in John's research got a leg up from being upfront about their failings? Check out the complete segment if you're curious.

Whatever the impact of our preference for straight shooters in politics, the lesson for everyday life is pretty clear. Sure, there are some secrets best left unmentioned (and, I'm positive, how you tell someone about your screw ups and mistakes matters too), but when it comes to most human foibles, admitting your imperfections is more likely to earn you affection than rejection.

Do these findings line up with your lived experience?

Published on: Feb 16, 2016
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