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The Closet Is Real, and It’s Bad

2013 March 19
by Eric Horowitz

Not that we need science to convince people that concealing key aspects of your identity can be unhealthy, but some important new research led by Harvard’s Alexandra Sedlovskaya helps clarify the psychological consequences of constantly concealing part of who you are.

In the study’s initial set of experiments participants who concealed stigmatized identities (e.g. gay men) were faster than participants without stigmatized identities at categorizing attributes as part of either their “self-at-work” or “self-at-home.”  The faster times suggest that when people conceal their identities it makes the distinction between their public and private selves more accesible. In two follow-up experiments the researchers found that this cognitive distinction between the selves not only led to psychological distress, it did a better job explaining participants’ distress than the broader act of concealment.

The present studies are the first to use social psychological theory and methods to test popular claims that the experience of concealing a stigmatized social identity leads to a divided self. Studies 1a and 2 established that public–private schematization occurred among people who have stigmatized concealable social identities relative to people who do not…Using two different measures of distress—perceived social stress (Study 4) and depressive symptoms (Study 5)—among samples of employed gay men, we showed in Studies 4 and 5 that public–private schematization accounted for the association between concealment and heightened distress. Cumulatively, these studies support the hypothesis that for people with stigmatized social identities, routine concealment of these identities in public contexts is associated with a greater influence of public and private social contexts on the architecture of the self-concept, with costs for psychological well-being. 

It’s important to note that this doesn’t merely apply to sexual orientation. Every day people around the world are concealing their immigration status, religious beliefs, and political views, and these potentially necessary concealments will ultimately lead to substandard psychological health.

Another issue to consider is whether the development of new personas via Facebook, Twitter, or other online communities will lead to an overall increase in the stress that results from divided selves. Keeping your active membership in an online gaming community hidden from your classmates isn’t quite the same as concealing a stereotypical stigmatized identity, but it certainly seems like at the margin it could lead to a detrimental strengthening of the distinction between public and private selves (or a public self and a second public self.)
Sedlovskaya, A., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Eibach, R., LaFrance, M., Romero-Canyas, R., & Camp, N. (2013). Internalizing the Closet: Concealment Heightens the Cognitive Distinction Between Public and Private Selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0031179

One Response leave one →
  1. Margi_Ming permalink
    March 20, 2013

    Interesting. Some great novels of the 19th century described the psychic burdens that people who have broken the law sometimes feel. They are even relieved to be arrested! Your example of illegal immigrants is actually in that category, isn’t it? It is a burden to have broken the law and to never know when you might get in trouble due to your offense. Presumably avoiding that sort of feeling is one of the reasons people try not to break the law. That helps maintain an organized and civilized society. In places where people do not have that burden, no one is safe and everyone has the constant daily burden of avoiding violent crime. South Africa and Northern Mexico are like that, or so I have read.


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