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Hiding chocolate stashes or Amazon purchases from a partner? ‘Guilty’ purchases may have benefits

For Immediate Release Aug 24, 2022

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Do you have a secret stash of chocolates that you keep from your partner, or do you intentionally keep your spouse from knowing about something you bought on Amazon? New research indicates that small but commonly hidden actions such as these may be good for the relationship.

In the first known study of the emotional, behavioral and relational aspects of secret consumer behavior, researchers at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, the University of Connecticut and Duke University found that guilt from secret consumption often leads to greater relationship investment.

“In our study, we found that 90% of people have recently kept everyday consumer behaviors a secret from a close other – like a friend or spouse – even though they also report that they don’t think their partner would care if they knew about it,” said Kelley Gullo Wight, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kelley School and one of two lead authors on the study. “Even though most of these secret acts are quite ordinary, they can still – positively – impact the relationship. The positive impact is an important piece.”

Most previous research on secrets has focused on those that hide significant and negative information, such as trauma or extramarital affairs. That research has generally found negative outcomes of secrets.

In their research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Wight and her co-authors explored how common it was for people not to tell significant others about their everyday consumption behavior and what the consequences were.

They found that keeping secrets about mundane consumption – such as sneaking pizza or a Big Mac or watching ahead on a TV show – can lead to slight feelings of guilt but also can drive people to want to invest more in their relationships, which is a positive effect.

That “greater relationship investment” might include spending more on Valentine’s Day for their partner or being willing to watch their partner’s favorite movie, for example.

Other authors of the paper, “Secret Consumer Behaviors in Close Relationships,” are Danielle J. Brick, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons, the Edward S. and Rose K. Donnell Professor of Marketing and Psychology in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The researchers conducted a series of studies and collected data from couples, from both sides in those relationships, and asked them about secret consumption they had kept from each other. They also gathered data from hypothetical examples.

The majority of participants surveyed said their secret consumption was best described as a product (65%), followed by an experience (12%) and a service (10%). Food or drink was most cited (40%), followed by clothing or jewelry or a hobby (both 10%), a gift or donation (8%), and a health, beauty or wellness product (6.3%).

“One of my favorite findings is that partners often keep the same secrets from each other,” said Brick, the study’s co-lead author. “In one couple, both partners reported secretly eating meat when they were both supposed to be vegetarian.”

Wight said their findings offer companies insights into ways to help consumers use their products in secret. For example, marketers should ask their consumers about when and from whom they use their products so they can better support the secret usage.

“We find that people generally keep consumption a secret from a specific person, not necessarily everyone, which means that encouraging secret consumption shouldn’t inhibit other marketing strategies, such as word of mouth,” Wight said.

Future studies may want to look at the reasons people engage in such behavior. But for now the research suggests that secret consumption can be a win-win for both the marketer and the consumer.

So go ahead, keep your secret chocolate stash, the researchers said. It may be good for your relationship.

Media Contact

Kelley School of Business

George Vlahakis

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