Psycho-sociological dimensions of the secret

Psycho-sociological dimensions of the secret  dali_giraffe1.jpg(Salvador Dali, Burning Giraffe)          

1.      Introduction

I decided to put Dali’s painting on the first page because it has a symbolic meaning related to the subject of the paper. For Dali, great admirer of Freud and of his interest in the dark depths of human psyche, the drawer is the symbol of the secret. Psychoanalysis is not in my view in this paper, though.

Here I will highlight the most important psychological and sociological aspects of the secret. First, I will analyze Simmel’s thought on the subject, as it is an early and of great important contribution to the understanding of what the secret is and how it is exploited in social interaction between individuals or groups. Then I will explore the links between secret and social control on information, following Wilsnack’s contribution. 

The secret means, as Simmel puts it, ‘limitation of reciprocal knowledge’. Petitat thinks that secret may appear under four different forms, like the unsaid, the lie, the intimacy and the complicity[i]. He distinguishes between dyadic and triadic secret, the latter being the situation in which two or more person share a secret from which the others are excluded.  

2.      The secret viewed by Georg Simmel

Simmel states that ‘reciprocal apprehension is the presumption for every social relationship’[ii].

This is only partly a conscious fact and it refers only to ‘typical tendencies and qualities’, because these are sufficient in order for an interaction to take place. This apprehension depends on the standpoint of the person that apprehends toward the person to be apprehended. This means, in a more general view, that ‘no psychological knowledge is a mere mechanical echo of its object’. The psychological data of the observer is therefore of great importance, as well as the context in which the observation takes place. Two or more perceptions of a person can be true at the same time.

The individual needs truth as much as error. The individual is often ‘ in need of illusion as to his powers and even as to his feelings, of superstition in reference to God as well as men, in order to sustain himself in his being and in his potentialities’[iii]. But unlike any other object of knowledge, what is in the power of man to do is to offer knowledge about himself. Thus, as Simmel puts it, ‘our fellow-man either may voluntarily reveal to us the truth about himself, or by dissimulation he may deceive us as to the truth’[iv]. This happens because the human being is interested in the knowledge that is acquired about himself. A lie does not only hide the truth about a fact but also the conception that the liar has of that fact.

The harmfulness of a lie varies with the complexity of the social structure in which it is told. A lie is much more dangerous in modern societies than it was in primitive societies. This is because in modern societies individuals make decisions rested upon ‘a complicated system of conceptions’ that they inherit with the culture they are born in and that they cannot put to test. And what made general confidence in the honesty of the others possible is the moral law that prohibits lie.

The harmfulness of a lie depends also on the proximity of the liar, which means that if a person who belongs to the closest circle of individuals that surround us, who therefore has great importance to us (which means great power of influence), lies to us, it can be much more disastrous than if it were someone that we barely knew.

Simmel also shows how lie was used in primitive societies to overcome physical force, which imposed the rules at the time, as a form of intellectual influence. Lie becomes unnecessary when the government of a society ceases to be disagreeable for the individuals, and it is at this time that lie is thought of in terms of ethics. When this happens also amongst the traders, the benefit of the trade will no longer be only on the side of the trader, but will spread in the whole group. From this, Simmel concludes that ‘enlightenment which aims at elimination of the element of deception from the social life is always of a democratic character’[v]. 

The social contact between individuals supposes the community of a spiritual content and the most important vehicle for this content is language.

Reciprocal knowledge is not the only condition for social interaction, a certain degree of reciprocal concealment is needed as well. Simmel argues here about the ‘direct positive sociological significance of untruthfulness’[vi]. In fact, societies progress not just because of the cooperation between people, but also thanks to the negative interactions that occur between them. And, even more, cooperation would not be possible were all information transparent and available.

Lying also means limitation of the other’s knowledge. This effect is also obtained by secrecy and concealment. Secrecy is in fact defined as ‘consciously willed concealment’. In some associations of modern societies, those that have a special purpose, members do not need to know anything about their colleagues. They only have to perform their task in the organization and know who is and who is not a member of the organization. The involvement is almost entirely objective and this is a trait of the modern societies’ associations.

Simmel talks about confidence. Confidence is the basis of action, and how much knowledge one has to have on a subject in order to be confident and therefore act depends on ‘historic epoch, range of interest and individuals’. And in modern societies’ associations, confidence is acquired on the basis of objective knowledge of an associate.

This situation is the consequence of the type of relationship circumscribed by interest which is acquaintance. Acquaintance means that the persons involved in this kind of relation know of each other only what they normally reveal in social interaction and it implies discretion – not going beyond the level of knowledge that a person exposes of himself. Discretion doesn’t mean here respecting an interdiction, but maintaining the distance to the person, respecting his ‘definite sphere filled by the personality with its power, its will and its greatness’[vii]. Discretion is no longer respected when it comes to establish contractual relationships which require a wide knowledge on every quality of a person that could count in the success of the contractual relationship. Discretion could also limit one’s psychological interpretation and mental investigation of a person to whom he is acquainted.

Another type of relationships is that in which the subjectiveness of personalities is widely involved. It includes friendship and marriage. The former, thinks Simmel, is more likely to allow complete mutual understanding and confidence. Just that, in modern times, individuals incline to develop differentiated friendships, meaning that they allocate sectors of their personality sphere to different persons following various criteria: sympathy, intellectual community etc.[viii] In this case, discretion does not mean keeping a certain distance from the center of the personality sphere, but not intruding in the other sectors of it.

In respect to marriages (modern marriages based on love), Simmel develops a very beautiful analysis of the role of the ‘still unrevealed’ in this type of relationship. Those marriages, in which partners have revealed themselves entirely to each other, without having the exceptional capacity to regenerate their inner wealth, have failed. Thus, it seems that ‘the right of questioning [is] to be limited by a right of secrecy’[ix] if the relation is to work successfully. 

Secrecy in this sense – i.e., which is effective through negative or positive means of concealment – is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity’.[x] This is so because secrecy allows a different world to exist parallel to the ordinary one. Secrecy varies in amount from a relationship between two or more individuals to another. Secrecy can be viewed as a form of commerce. It also accentuates possession of information and its value as it excludes others from knowing. It raises the prestige of the possessor of the secret. The error that usually comes with secrecy is to think that what is secret is highly important.

The secret creates a tension between ‘the retentive and the communicative energies’, the latter combined with the anticipation of the joy of confession.

In large societies, secrecy is likely to develop. Simmel gives the example of monetary relationships, which permit a great degree of secrecy due to three attributes that money have, which facilitate dissimulation: compressibility, abstractness and long-distance effectiveness. Also, ‘it appears that with increasing telic characteristic of culture the affairs of people at large become more and more public, those of individuals more and more secret’[xi]. The state assures the transparency of government while individual affairs become more opaque. (In our times, though, this does not seem to be the general opinion. On the contrary, people are frustrated about the secrecy that surrounds the authority and the intrusion of the authority’s agencies in their private spheres by enforced surveillance motivated by the need of security.)

Simmel views secrecy as a ‘sociological ordination which characterizes the reciprocal relation of group elements[xii]. The sociological meaning of secrecy is external when it remains at an individual level (isolation from others who don’t share the secret) and internal when the secret is possessed in common. The latter form is characteristic to secret societies. They have to be invisible (or at least their purposes must be hidden – the case of relatively secret bodies) and to shelter mutual confidence (the confidence in the capacity to preserve silence) between members.

‘The secret society is the appropriate social form for contents which are at an immature stage of development’.[xiii] A society uses secrecy because it could not have defended itself if the things hidden were made public. Secrecy is thus temporary. It also appears when a society decays and approaches extinction. Simmel thinks that, as a general rule, ‘the secret society emerges everywhere as correlate of despotism and of police control’[xiv], as the secret protects from penalty.

The confidence between members of a secret society is always tested and renewed, as betrayal, being more determined my context than by personal traits, is possible at any time. The means to keep members’ discretion are psychological – oaths, threats etc. The teaching of silence is essential. It induces the self-discipline of members. Also, by being a society, the secret society promotes socialization between members, which in this case ‘is a technique for better protection of the secrecy’[xv]. Socialization is though sought by weak members.

The tendency that separates maybe the most the secret from the open society is the one which accentuates the importance of the ritual more than that of the purposes of the organization. The sociological explanation of this fact is that secret societies create ‘a species of life-totality’, ‘a structure of formulas like a body around soul’[xvi], in order to assure coherence to their existence and that of their members and internal cohesion of the society.

Simmel talks then about the relative freedom that a secret society holds in the larger public society it exists in: ‘the apartness which characterizes the secret society has the tone of a freedom’[xvii]. Thus, secret societies are autonomous. Simmel even argues that a ‘widespread existence of secret societies is, as a rule, a proof of public unfreedom[xviii].

What is not to be forgotten about secret societies is that they are secondary structures, which means they only appear in a preexisting complete society. The sociological exclusiveness is intensified in the case of secret societies, which gives them the value of being distinct and the status of elite. Members of political aristocracies kept their identities secret to the public, in the first place because they didn’t want the public to find out their small number.

Unlike ordinary public societies (like churches or nations) which function obeying the principle ‘whoever is nod excluded is included’, secret society are the pure representation of the opposed principle ‘whoever is not included is excluded’.

Open societies demand to individuals, things that may be opposed. The internal conflict that could appear in the individual’s mind (and which raises the risk of betrayal) is avoided in secret societies, as members are required to leave at the entrance the competitive interests they have in the public societies. Agreement must be preserved in secret societies. This is so because of the centralization, strict hierarchy and submissiveness of members that characterizes secret societies. This centralization is sometimes sublimated in the hidden identity of the chief – ‘a power nowhere to be seen, but for that reason everywhere to be expected’[xix]. This situation of centralized power and secrecy leads to the leveling of the obeying members, to their de-individualization, and therefore to their irresponsibility. 

3.      Secret and Social Control over Information

It has been argued that government agencies increase their knowledge over citizens’ activities, while inversely the knowledge decreases, creating a feeling of frustration among citizens.

To make something secret requires the power to control information. Apparently, there is scarcity of theories about social control of information. Wilsnack proposes a general conceptual framework for sociological analysis of information control. Thus, he defines information control as ‘the processes used to make sure that certain people will or will not have access to certain information at certain times[xx]. Control over information requires the ability to freely decide if to communicate of not, what to communicate and to whom to communicate.  

The author identifies four general processes for controlling factual information, namely information that is positive and verifiable, even though the author agrees that plausible information can be often subject to control, due to its scarcity and because it is hard to obtain[xxi]. These processes, interrelated logically and practically, are espionage, secrecy, persuasion and evaluation. 

I think a brief presentation of the four will better clarify the role of secrecy, and therefore of secret, in the information control.

Espionage is the process of obtaining information from people who do not want you to have that information’[xxii]. It may be coercive, it may not involve direct human participation, it considers the channels of access to the source even more important than the present information acquired, it assumes the ignorance of the source of the fact that it is subject to espionage and it tends to over appreciate the importance of the information acquired.

Secrecy is the process of keeping other people from obtaining information you do not want them to have’[xxiii]. Secrecy is observed by governmental bureaucracy, international affairs and by humans in the effort to preserve their intimacy. Secrecy conceals if a fact happened, who was involved or what happened. Secrecy is often codified in order to assure its complete security. Security is a secondary process which enforces the secrecy and therefore the value of information kept secret. Security may become the excuse for excessive surveillance by the authorities. And surveillance may infringe other people’s right to secrecy.

Persuasion is the process of making sure that other people obtain and believe information you want them to have’[xxiv]. If the communicator believes the information, then we talk about education, otherwise it is called deception and it can be exerted by propaganda, controlled leaks etc. Persuasion requires a lot of effort in order to make the information look authentic. Also, ‘messages intended to deceive enemies may deceive one’s friends’[xxv].

Evaluation is ‘the process of making sure that you learn more from the information you have obtained than just what other people want you to know’[xxvi]. Information is tested and interpreted, sometimes not used until it is corroborated with other information, because evaluation is meant to avoid mistakes. Evaluation reasons also by induction in order to draw the most of little data.

The four methods are almost always combined in controlling information. Wilsnack analyses the possible combination of them and the purposes these combinations serve. Thus, ‘espionage and evaluation help control the input of information’ whereas secrecy and persuasion are used in controlling information output. Control is exerted at the source of information by secrecy and espionage and at the point of reception by persuasion and evaluation. The rate of information flow is also subjected to control: ‘espionage and persuasion try to increase the flow, while secrecy and evaluation involve restricting the flow’[xxvii]. These four processes can reinforce one another within a social unit controlling information or they can counteract one another between social units. These processes are also involved in the case of collaboration of social units aiming to exert together control over information.  

4.      Conclusions

This essay does not cover all aspects of what secret means to an individual living in a modern society and what it means to social groups. We can have though a general picture of the psycho-sociological reasons that make secrets exist and persist, of the position occupied by secrets between truth and error, of how secrets are used by individuals of groups in order to influence others’ behavior, of their tendency to expand because of the value added by secrecy to what is kept secret and to whom knows it, of their enforcement by surveillance in order to assure the security of the secret. 

Simina Diaconu


GOFFMAN, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday life, Garden City, New York, 1959

MOSCOVICI, Serge, Psihologia sociala sau masina de fabricat zei, Polirom, Iasi, 1997

PETITAT, André, Secret si forme sociale, Polirom, Iasi, 2004 

SIMMEL, Georg, ‘The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1906

WILSNACK, Richard, ‘Information Control: A Conceptual Framework for Sociological Analysis’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 8, No.4, 1980 

[i] André PETITAT, Secret si forme sociale, Polirom, Iasi, 2004, p. 16

[ii] Georg SIMMEL, ‘The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1906, p. 442
[iii] Ibidem, p. 444
[iv] Ibidem, p. 445
[v] Ibidem, p. 447
[vi] Ibidem, p. 448
[vii] Ibidem, p. 453
[viii] Ibidem, p. 458
[ix] Ibidem, p. 462
[x] Ibidem, p. 462
[xi] Ibidem, p. 468
[xii] Ibidem, p. 469
[xiii] Ibidem, p. 471
[xiv] Ibidem, p. 472
[xv] Ibidem, p. 477
[xvi] Ibidem, p. 481
[xvii] Ibidem, p. 482
[xviii] Ibidem, p. 483
[xix] Ibidem, p. 494
[xx] Richard WILSNACK, ‘Information Control: A Conceptual Framework for Sociological Analysis’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 8, No.4, 1980, p. 468
[xxi] Ibidem, p. 494
[xxii] Ibidem, p. 470
[xxiii] Ibidem, p. 471
[xxiv] Ibidem, p. 473
[xxv] Ibidem, p. 474
[xxvi] Ibidem, p. 475
[xxvii] Ibidem, p. 477

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