Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions

Sarah K. Cowan

Sociological Science, November 3, 2014
DOI 10.15195/v1.a26

This study examines who hears what secrets, comparing two similar secrets — one which is highly stigmatized and one which is less so. Using a unique survey representative of American adults and intake forms from a medical clinic, I document marked differences in who hears these secrets. People who are sympathetic to the stigmatizing secret are more likely to hear of it than those who may react negatively. This is a consequence not just of people selectively disclosing their own secrets but selectively sharing others’ as well. As a result, people in the same social network will be exposed to and influenced by different information about those they know and hence experience that network differently. When people effectively exist in networks tailored by others to not offend then the information they hear tends to be that of which they already approve. Were they to hear secrets they disapprove of then their attitudes might change but they are less likely to hear those secrets. As such, the patterns of secret-hearing contribute to a stasis in public opinion.
 Sarah K. Cowan: New York University  E-mail:

  • Citation: Cowan, Sarah K. 2014. “Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions” Sociological Science 1: 466-492.
  • Received: July 22, 2014
  • Accepted: August 31, 2014
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen,  Olav Sorenson
  • DOI: 10.15195/v1.a26

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