19 March 2019

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The Burden of Secret Keeping in HBO's Game of Thrones

Research from Columbia Business School reveals the burden and benefits of keeping secrets

Game of Thrones - Varys and Tyrion Lannister
Game of Thrones - Varys and Tyrion Lannister
Game of Thrones is full of secrets. Characters keep secrets, exploit secrets, and reveal secrets to build alliances. New research by Columbia Business School Professor Michael Slepian reveals the extent that Varys and other characters in Game of Thrones are encumbered by secrets—both their own and others'. 

As HBO's blockbuster series airs its final season this spring, Slepian's scholarship suggests that one of the greatest burdens its characters have carried through the eight-season mega-drama is not physical, but the mental weight of secrecy.

Slepian, who has used examples from Game of Thrones to illustrate negotiation principles in the classroom, says this scene of Varys promising to keep a secret for Tyrion Lannister underscores the upside and the downside of keeping others' secrets:
"Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires," says the character Varys, who trades in secrets as the official "master of whisperers."

"Rest easy my lord," Varys says to Tyrion Lannister in an early episode, "I am very good at keeping secrets."

"Your discretion is legendary, where your friends are concerned," responds Tyrion, realizing that he is trapped under a burden of secrecy with Varys.
On the one hand, says Slepian, Varys is taking on a burden because he will have to think about, and conceal, Tyrion's secret. But Varys is also creating a bond of confidence and trust, which is something in short supply among the dueling personalities of Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones - Lord Varys
Game of Thrones - Lord Varys  (image via Zimbio)
Slepian's research shows that secrets are not all equaling taxing. Across four different studies, Slepian, along with co-authors James Kirby of the University of Queensland and Elise Kalokerinosof the University of Newcastle, reviewed 1,000 participants keeping more than 6,000 secrets and found that we think more about secrets that cause us shame than those that cause us guilt.

In one study, nearly 200 participants were asked to recall a secret as well as the associated feelings of either shame or guilt on a rating of 1 to 7. Participants then reported the number of times over 30 days they spontaneously thought about the secret or felt the need to conceal the secret.

"When a secret evoked feelings of shame, the secret was more likely to intrude upon one's thinking in irrelevant moments," according to the paper. This consuming nature of shameful secrets might give new context to season five of Game of Thrones, when a humiliated Queen Cersei—who has long hidden a shameful secret of infidelity—must walk through the streets of King's Landing while a clergywoman cries "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Game of Thrones - Queen Cersei
Game of Thrones - Queen Cersei (image via Wrath Of The Geek)
Secrecy can have an upside, however. In a separate paper, Slepian and Katharine Greenaway of the University of Melbourne measured the burdens of keeping our own secrets versus others' secrets—and the potential benefits to intimacy.
According to the research, at any given time, we are each keeping an average of 15 secrets for other people. Across three studies with more than 600 participants holding more than 10,000 secrets, the researchers found that the burdensomeness of others' secrets is a function of how often one must actively conceal the secret on their behalf due to an overlap in social circles.

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