The Psychological Implications of Concealing a Stigma:
A Cognitive–Affective–Behavioral Model
John E. Pachankis
Stony Brook University, State University of New York
Many assume that individuals with a hidden stigma escape the difficulties faced by individuals with a
visible stigma. However, recent research has shown that individuals with a concealable stigma also face
considerable stressors and psychological challenges. The ambiguity of social situations combined with
the threat of potential discovery makes possessing a concealable stigma a difficult predicament for many
individuals. The increasing amount of research on concealable stigmas necessitates a cohesive model for
integrating relevant findings. This article offers a cognitive–affective–behavioral process model for
understanding the psychological implications of concealing a stigma. It ends with discussion of potential
points of intervention in the model as well as potential future routes for investigation of the model.
Keywords: stigma, conceal, secrecy, disclosure, self-evaluation
In recent years, researchers have paid increasing attention to the
experience of possessing a devalued trait that is obvious to others,
such as being a member of a racially stigmatized group (Clark,
Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999; Crocker, Major, & Steele,
1998; Dion, 2002; Dohrenwend, 2000; Kessler, Mickelson, &
Williams, 1999; Kessler & Neighbors, 1986; Wethington &
Kessler, 1986; Williams, Yu, Jackson, & Anderson, 1997). Mean-
while, many have assumed that individuals with a concealable
stigma (e.g., being gay) escape much of the prejudice and discrim-
ination faced by visibly stigmatized individuals because they can
hide their stigma (Goffman, 1963; Jones et al., 1984). However,
individuals with concealable stigmas may also face considerable
stressors. These include having to make decisions to disclose one’s
hidden status, anxiously anticipating the possibility of being found
out, being isolated from similarly stigmatized others, and being
detached from one’s true self. Efforts to conceal a stigma can have
a powerful, negative impact on an individual’s daily life. Yet, until
recently, very few psychologists have paid much attention to the
unique experiences of individuals with a hidden stigma. This
article reviews the research on the difficulties of concealing a
stigma, highlights how these difficulties differ from those faced by
individuals with a visible stigma, and offers an integrative model
for understanding these findings.
Individuals with a concealable stigma face many challenges in
choosing whether, when, how, and to whom to disclose their
stigma (e.g., Derlega & Berg, 1987; K. Greene, Derlega, Yep, &
Petronio, 2003; Holmes & River, 1998; Kelly & McKillop, 1996;
Larson & Chastain, 1990). Unlike individuals with a visible
stigma, individuals with a concealable stigma must face disclosure
decisions regularly. In every new situation that is encountered,
such individuals must decide who among the present company
knows of their stigma, who may suspect this stigma, and who has
no suspicion of the stigma. The difficulty of such ambiguity is
heightened by the fact that it may not be judicious for the stigma-
tized individual to disclose to many of the individuals he or she
encounters. These challenges have been documented in research
with participants with epilepsy (e.g., Kleck, 1968), HIV (e.g.,
Chesney & Smith, 1999; Parsons, VanOra, Missildine, Purcell, &
Go ´mez, 2004; Simoni et al., 1995), mental illnesses (e.g., Farina,
Gliha, Boudreau, Allen, & Sherman, 1971; Quinn, Kahng, &
Crocker, 2004), or a nonheterosexual sexual orientation (e.g.,
Croteau, 1996; Woods & Harbeck, 1991); those who are illiterate
(e.g., Freeman & Kassebaum, 1956), infertile (e.g., Miall, 1986;
Schaffer & Diamond, 1993), deaf (e.g., He ´tu, 1996; Higgins,
1980), unemployed (e.g., Letkemann, 2002), or from a working-
class background (e.g., Granfield, 1991); and those with past
experiences of abortion (e.g., Major & Gramzow, 1999) or other
trauma (e.g., rape; Koss, 1985). Individuals or organizations that
discover a concealable stigma may deny the stigmatized person
employment, housing, medical care, and education. The revelation
of many concealable stigmas could potentially result in child
custody loss, social isolation, loss of job, abandonment by parents
or close others, and even violence (e.g., Corrigan & Kleinlein,
2005; Herek, 1998; Herek & Berrill, 1992). The ambiguity of
social situations combined with the threat of potential discovery
makes possessing a concealable stigma a difficult predicament for
Current Approaches to Understanding the Challenges of
Since Goffman’s (1963) landmark book on stigmas, in which he
presented evidence of the challenges involved in being discredit-
able, much of the work on concealable stigmas, both qualitative
and quantitative, has been grounded in a variety of theories. These
theories include, for example, communication privacy manage-
I thank Lisa Burckell, Catherine Eubanks-Carter, Marvin Goldfried,
Daniel Klein, and Sheri Levy for their very helpful feedback on earlier
versions of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John E.
Pachankis, Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, State
University of New York, Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500. E-mail:
2007, Vol. 133, No. 2, 328–345
Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association
0033-2909/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.2.328
ment theory (e.g., K. Greene et al., 2003; Petronio, 2002), strategic
perception management (e.g., Olney & Brockelman, 2003), iden-
tity management theory (e.g., Cain, 1991; Clair, Beatty, & Mac-
Lean, 2005; Woods & Harbeck, 1991), and cognitive theories of
secrecy (e.g., Santuzzi & Ruscher, 2002; Smart & Wegner, 2000).
Much of this work is supported by basic findings in areas as
disparate as stigma (e.g., Crocker & Major, 1989; Goffman, 1963),
secrecy (e.g., Kelly, 2002; Kelly & McKillop, 1996), self-
disclosure (e.g., Derlega & Berg, 1987; Jourard, 1971; Penne-
baker, 1997), self-presentation (DePaulo, 1992), and self-
monitoring (Snyder, 1987). Current conceptualizations are briefly
The communication privacy management model highlights the
often complicated management of information exchange subse-
quent to an initial disclosure of sensitive information (Petronio,
2002). According to this scheme, when managing private infor-
mation, individuals who possess the information must follow the
dictates of a variety of boundary structures and rules that regulate
the flow of private information between self and others. In this
way, individuals to whom the private information is disclosed must
also negotiate the stigmatizing information of the other person,
determining how and with whom to share that information. This
heuristic model has been notably applied to the difficulties that
individuals face in managing the concealment and disclosure of an
HIV diagnosis. This model is useful for examining the negotiation
of private information in interpersonal interactions. However, it
does not address the psychological experience of this negotiation.
Strategic perception management theory (e.g., Olney & Brock-
elman, 2003) more closely considers the psychological experience
of possessing a concealable stigma. This theory focuses on the
necessity for individuals with a concealable stigma to develop
strategies to control their interactions with others whom they
perceive to be nonstigmatized. The theory suggests that individuals
with a concealable stigma must focus closely on social interactions
in order to look for clues that their interaction partner may suspect
the stigma while taking an active role in guiding the nature of the
interaction in such a way that the stigma can remain hidden. Rather
than suggesting that individuals with a concealable stigma pas-
sively participate in social interaction, strategic perception man-
agement theory highlights the active stance that these individuals
must take in negotiating others’ detection of their stigmatized
status. Although it highlights the behavioral strategies that indi-
viduals with a hidden stigma use to keep their stigma hidden, this
theory does not provide a framework for considering the overall
psychological process that maintains this behavior.
Another theory that addresses the experience of possessing a
concealable stigma is identity management theory. Similar to the
two theories mentioned above, it considers the management of
information regarding one’s stigma. This model, though, looks
specifically at the way individuals manage such information in the
context of an overall identity. This theory has been most effec-
tively applied to understanding the process of information man-
agement in the context of developing a nonheterosexual identity.
For example, Cain (1991) used this approach to highlight the
difficulties that gay men face in forming a positive identity despite
hiding a core part of it. This theory can also explicate the factors
impacting one’s decision to reveal or hide a concealable stigma in
specific environments such as the workplace. One such use of this
theory considers both individual difference factors (e.g., self-
monitoring, propensity toward risk taking) and contextual factors
(e.g., legal protections, professional norms) that lead one to make
a decision to reveal or hide a stigmatized status (Clair et al., 2005).
Identity management theory addresses the way in which possess-
ing a potentially concealable stigma poses challenges that must be
negotiated across situations. Yet, this model does not specify the
intrapersonal process by which this negotiation occurs.
One model, though, does address the intrapersonal process faced
by individuals who conceal a stigma. Smart and Wegner (1999,
2000) applied the cognitive preoccupation model of secrecy (e.g.,
Lane & Wegner, 1995) to the cognitive consequences of conceal-
ing a stigma. Attempting to hide a stigma, like hiding any secret,
leads an individual to become preoccupied with thoughts of that
stigma, which has the ability to impact the individual’s well-being
and social functioning. This occurs through four interrelated se-
quences: (a) secrecy causes thoughts to be suppressed, (b) this
suppression causes intrusions of the thought, (c) intrusion leads to
increased efforts to suppress the thought, and (d) the cycle of
intrusion–suppression continues as long as the information is kept
secret. Data exist regarding this process as it applies to keeping
secrets, generally (e.g., Lane & Wegner, 1995), and concealing an
eating disorder, specifically (Smart & Wegner, 1999). The model
is useful for understanding the cognitive consequences of conceal-
ing a stigma, although it does not address the cyclical nature of
distress that arises from other psychological domains that may or
may not be influenced by cognitive processes.
A Comprehensive Process Model
The above models address discrete aspects of possessing a
concealable stigma (e.g., the process of stigma disclosure, the
cognitive consequences of hiding a stigma). Yet, no existing
framework or model highlights the overall psychological impact
that concealing a stigma can have for an individual. Therefore,
researchers who study concealable stigmas lack a cohesive model
for integrating their findings. This article attempts to offer a
tentative model that can guide interpretation of the literature and
point to directions for future research.
The present model joins other social cognitive process models in
explaining the way that person and environmental variables inter-
act to shape eventual behavioral outcomes (e.g., Andersen & Chen,
2002; Downey & Feldman, 1996; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Gold-
fried, 1995; Magnusson, 1990; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Although
it is important to recognize the sway of long-standing individual
traits (e.g., information-processing strategies, temperament, and
biological variables) on person–situation outcomes, this model
attempts to predict the cycle that anyone who conceals a stigma
may encounter regardless of his or her unique predispositions. This
heuristic model rests on the premise that concealing a stigma
influences the features of situations to which individuals are most
likely to be attuned as well as the cognitive and affective mediators
of behavior in stigma-relevant situations. In the proposed cycle,
the influence of concealing a stigma extends beyond the influence
of global personality traits.
The model in Figure 1 depicts the details of the process expe-
rienced by those with a concealable stigma in a stigma-relevant
situation. This model proposes that features of situations activate a
set of internal reactions, both cognitive and affective, for individ-
uals with a concealable stigma. These cognitive and affective
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
responses, such as preoccupation, vigilance, guilt, and shame, are
closely linked, and their influences are bidirectional. Negative
cognitive patterns, such as misattribution of the source of one’s
difficulties, can lead to problematic affective states, such as anx-
iety and depression (e.g., Beck, 1976; Schachter & Singer, 1962),
and negative affective states can lead to problematic cognitive
processing (e.g., Bower, 1981; Teasdale & Russell, 1983). Both
cognition and affect play a dynamic role in influencing eventual
behavior and can impact behavior either separately or together. For
example, preoccupation with one’s undisclosed HIV-positive sta-
tus may lead to anxiety in potential romantic encounters. Preoc-
cupation and anxiety, alone or together, may lead to social awk-
wardness in these encounters. This behavior, in turn, affects the
individual’s interpersonal environment. The present model addi-
tionally recognizes the importance of self-evaluation in influenc-
ing the way individuals interact with their surroundings. Self-
evaluation is an essential component of the present model, as
individuals’ cognition, affect, and behavior influence their self-
concept and perceived efficacy in any given situation. Conversely,
individuals’ self-concept and perceived efficacy influence their
cognition, affect, and behavior. Thus, if one doubts his or her
abilities to succeed in a given situation, this is likely to affect his
or her thoughts, feelings, and actions. Within the context of the
preceding example, as HIV-positive individuals think, feel, or act
poorly in romantic encounters, they see themselves in a negative
light in that situation in addition to viewing their ability to improve
A process model of the psychological implications of concealing a stigma.
their romantic situation as limited (e.g., Burns, 1979; Epstein &
Erskine, 1983; Magnusson, 1990; Markus & Wurf, 1987). Such
negative self-evaluation likely will lead to problematic thoughts,
feelings, and behavior in future romantic encounters.
It should be emphasized from the start that concealable stigmas
vary in their level of concealability as well as in the severity and
duration of their consequences. For example, infertility, which can
be hidden for a long period of time, is arguably more concealable
than epilepsy, which is marked by periodic seizures. Yet even
infertility may not be completely concealable. For instance, rela-
tives and friends may continually ask a couple when they plan to
have children. After repeated inquiry, the infertile individual or
couple must become increasingly creative to stave off suspicion of
the secret stigma. Further, a progressive illness like Parkinson’s
disease results in gradual deterioration of physical abilities to the
point at which symptoms become very difficult to conceal. Such
gradual deterioration requires the stigmatized individuals to revise
or refine their strategy for managing the stigma. In addition, even
visible stigmas, such as race or obesity, can be concealed in some
types of interactions, such as those that involve telephone or
Internet communication. The ease with which an individual can
conceal his or her stigma no doubt influences the implications of
possessing such a stigma. This article is primarily concerned with
the implications of possessing a stigma that can be easily con-
cealed. However, there is no clear boundary on the concealability
continuum at which this discussion stops.
The model that follows incorporates relevant evidence from
broader theories of stigma, secrecy, self-disclosure, self-
presentation, and self-monitoring. The description begins with the
situational features that may trigger the negative psychological
outcomes of concealing and then highlights the cognitive, affec-
tive, behavioral, and self-evaluative responses that occur. The
narrative explains how the cognitive, affective, behavioral, and
self-evaluative consequences are interrelated and how each plays a
role in perpetuating problematic psychological outcomes in a
cyclical manner. It ends with a discussion of potential ways in
which this cycle may be broken as well as potential routes to
investigations of the cycle. As will be seen, most of the psycho-
logical implications of possessing a concealable stigma are related
to the challenges of concealing, per se, and the present review
focuses closely on those challenges. Yet, simply possessing a
stigma that can be concealed may be fraught with unique chal-
lenges not necessarily related to the process of concealing. This
article briefly considers those challenges as well.
To understand the psychological consequences of concealing a
stigma, one must understand the potential situational triggers of
these consequences. Thus, the discussion of the present model
begins at the level of situational influences. Here, situational
influences encompass those aspects of situations that are likely to
give rise to certain cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes
(see Figure 1). Situational factors influence cognition, affect, and
behavior (e.g., Endler, Hunt, & Rosenstein, 1962; Epstein, 1979;
Goldfried, 1995; Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Shoda, Mischel, & Wright,
1989; Spielberger, 1972). Situational factors also influence the
development of self-esteem. The self-esteem of visibly stigmatized
individuals, such as women and African Americans, emerges from
the meanings that individuals give to specific situations involving
those stigmas (e.g., Crocker & Quinn, 2000). Certain situations,
like being the only African American student in a university
lecture class, make one’s stigma particularly salient (Mendoza-
Denton, Downey, Purdie, Davis, & Pietrzak, 2002; Steele, Spen-
cer, & Aronson, 2002). Relevant to the model presented here are
features of situations that have differential consequences for those
with a concealable stigma versus those without such a stigma. The
present model proposes that certain aspects of situations directly
influence the cognitive–affective mediators of behavioral out-
comes in those situations (see Figure 1). Outlined below are
characteristics of situations that may bring about negative conse-
quences for those with a concealable stigma.
Prior theorizing and work suggests that individuals with a con-
cealable stigma experience difficulty in those situations in which
(a) one’s stigma is made salient, (b) one’s concealed stigma is
likely to be discovered, and (c) the consequences of being discov-
ered are costly. Stigma salience may be a concern for individuals
with either visible or concealable stigmas, whereas the threat and
consequences of being discovered are stressors unique to those
with concealable stigmas whose stigmatized status is not fully
known in all face-to-face social situations that they encounter.
Salience of Stigma
Stigma salience refers to the relative accessibility of stigma-
related thoughts or concerns. The salience of one’s concealable
stigma in a particular situation determines the psychological ex-
perience of that situation. A stigma is salient when it is shared by
many or shared by none in a given situation. For instance, the
stigma of being gay is salient at a gay pride parade attended by
many other openly gay people or at a family reunion attended by
no other openly gay person. Situations in which an individual
perceives himself or herself to be alone in possessing the stigma
may be more likely to lead to negative psychological consequences
than those situations in which similar others are present. In one
study, the presence of other people who shared the stigma of being
gay, bulimic, or poor yielded more positive self-esteem and mood
(Frable, Platt, & Hoey, 1998).
In addition to the presence or absence of similar others, the
presence of stigma-related cues can make one’s concealable
stigma salient. For instance, baby showers can make one’s infer-
tility salient, and research shows that infertile women find such
situations to be quite difficult (e.g., Miall, 1986; Schaffer &
Diamond, 1993; Whiteford & Gonzalez, 1995). Child-related cues
could also lead to negative psychological consequences for women
who have had an abortion. Similarly, eating-related cues can
trigger negative psychological consequences for young women
with bulimia (Smart & Wegner, 1999). Sexuality-related cues can
have a similar impact for nonheterosexual individuals. In fact, a
group of lesbian physical education teachers noted discomfort
when supervising the girls’ locker room (Woods & Harbeck,
1991). Again, stigma-related cues make one’s concealable stigma
salient and trigger negative psychological consequences as a result.
Threat of Discovery
In addition to stigma salience, the threat of discovery in a given
situation may negatively impact individuals with a concealable
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
stigma. Threat of discovery is high in situations that challenge or
question one’s status or identity. Endler and Bain (1966) found that
status-related situations, such as job interviews, made working-class
students more anxious than did non-status-related situations, such as
taking a final exam or giving a speech, possibly because working-
class students feared detection of their hidden background in those
situations related to socioeconomic status. Also relevant is the finding
by Lee and Craft (2002) that all of the participants in a genital herpes
support group reported avoiding sex-relevant relationships to some
degree following their diagnosis.
Situations in which one may be forced to answer questions
related to a stigmatized status raise the threat of discovery. In such
situations, individuals with a hidden stigma face the choice be-
tween telling the truth and facing the ensuing interpersonal con-
sequences or deceiving and facing the mostly intrapersonal con-
sequences. Situations in which one is asked pointed questions
about a hidden status make hiding difficult and distressing. Being
asked about HIV status by a presumably HIV-negative potential
sex partner will probably lead to stigma-related distress for a
person with HIV.
Consequences of Being Discovered
The perceived consequences of being discovered in a given
situation can also distress individuals with a concealable stigma.
The revelation of many concealable stigmas, such as homosexu-
ality, HIV infection, or mental illness may cause rejection, social
isolation, abuse, employment and housing discrimination, disown-
ment by parents or close others, and even violence (e.g., Corrigan
& Kleinlein, 2005; Herek, 1998; Herek & Berrill, 1992). In 2003
alone, close to 1,500 lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals reported
being victims of hate crimes in the United States (Federal Bureau
of Investigation, 2004). Nearly half of those bias-related incidents
involved simple or aggravated assault. Religious minorities re-
ported a comparable incidence of bias-related victimization. Data
are unavailable regarding the settings in which this victimization
occurred. Yet, an individual who knows that such consequences
could occur if someone discovered his or her stigma would likely
avoid such situations or endure them uneasily.
Of course, these reported figures of victimization-related inci-
dents may be substantially lower than the actual occurrence of
such crimes because of the victims’ fear of further harassment or
rejection upon disclosing the crimes to authorities. In a recent
survey, most community-based HIV/AIDS service organizations
presented numerous instances of their clients losing or being
demoted in their jobs and losing housing and child visitation upon
disclosing their HIV-positive status (Lange, 2003). Additionally,
research suggests that stigma-related victimization may lead to
more negative psychological consequences than non-stigma-
related victimization (Herek, Gillis, & Cogan, 1999). Thus, when
entering situations in which discovery can lead to negative conse-
quences, individuals with a concealable stigma may encounter
substantial psychological difficulties.
This section highlights the cognitive consequences unique to
concealing a stigma. In the proposed model, challenging situations
(discussed previously) as well as affective and self-evaluative
challenges (discussed later) lead to these cognitive difficulties. The
relationships between cognition and affect as well as between
cognition and self-evaluation are bidirectional, meaning that cog-
nitive difficulties can also lead to affective and self-evaluative
distress. The link between situation and cognition is unidirectional
from situation to cognition. Thus, cognition impacts situations
only through its impact on behavior and self-evaluation (see Figure
1). Experimental data from other areas of psychology support the
location and functioning of cognition in the overall model in the
manner described here (e.g., Bandura, 1988; Bower, 1981; Bow-
ers, 1973; Meichenbaum, 1972; Teasdale & Russell, 1983).
As noted earlier, stigma salience may trigger negative psycho-
logical consequences for individuals with a concealable stigma.
Salience of the secret can be helpful, though, as it reminds the
secret keeper to avoid disclosing topics related to his or her secret.
However, even though it serves such a protective function, keeping
the secret in constant awareness can also be distressing, as it makes
the secret more available and thus more likely to be leaked (Lane
& Wegner, 1995). The notion that thought suppression leads to
thought intrusions has been supported by research showing that
participants who are instructed to stop thinking about an object
cannot easily do so and that thoughts of this object emerge when
efforts at suppression cease—the so-called rebound effect (Weg-
ner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987). Further, instructions of
thought suppression seem to make the suppressed thought more
likely to intrude upon consciousness, especially under conditions
of additional cognitive tasks (Wegner & Erber, 1992; Wegner,
Erber, & Zanakos, 1993). It is not surprising that such intrusions
may lead the secret keeper to fear that he or she will reveal the
secret and, thus, to increase suppression efforts. A series of studies
by Lane and Wegner (1995) elucidate the mechanisms of the
cognitive model of secrecy. These studies suggest that secrecy
leads to intrusive thoughts by increasing attempts at thought sup-
These findings are applicable to the experience of concealing a
stigma. Smart and Wegner (2000) noted that concealing a stigma-
tized status can lead to unique hidden costs not shared by individ-
uals with a visible stigma. The cognitive preoccupations of con-
cealing one’s stigma can be tremendous and hence have been
labeled as a private hell (Smart & Wegner, 2000). For example,
Smart and Wegner (1999) demonstrated the cognitive hold that
stigma can have on women with an eating disorder. The research-
ers assigned women with and without an eating disorder to par-
ticipate in an interview in which they were asked to role play
someone with or without an eating disorder status. The interviewer
asked questions designed to make one’s eating disorder salient, for
example, “Does anyone ever tell you that you have strange eating
habits?” Participants were then asked to complete self-report mea-
sures of their thought processes during the interview. In a subse-
quent study, participants responded to a Stroop task including
words related to eating disorders. The results of these studies
revealed that women with an eating disorder who were instructed
to conceal their stigma were more likely to report thought sup-
pression and thought intrusions during the interview than were
women in the other conditions, even those who had an eating
disorder and were instructed to reveal it. The results of the Stroop
task further supported these findings. That is, the women with an
eating disorder who hid their disorder demonstrated slower re-
sponse time to the eating disorder-related words, suggesting inter-
ference in cognitive processing of this information.
Thought intrusions may lead to fixed thinking in which the
secret consumes the individual’s daily life and leads to more
disordered thinking (Wegner & Lane, 1995). The inhibition of the
expression of emotion-laden topics may be associated with rumi-
nation about those topics, supporting the existence of the rebound
effect described above (King, Emmons, & Woodley, 1992). How-
ever, the rebound effect may be limited to thoughts about person-
ally irrelevant objects and may not occur for more personal,
difficult, or emotional thoughts (Kelly & Kahn, 1994; Roemer &
Borkovec, 1993; Wegner & Gold, 1995). It has been suggested that
individuals may protect themselves from such personal thoughts
by engaging in special defense strategies, such as distraction,
against these thoughts (Kelly & Kahn, 1994). Some people may
have quite emotional or difficult thoughts about their stigma,
especially if they view it as sick, sinful, or deviant. Whether the
rebound effect occurs for individuals who suppress such thoughts
about a concealable stigma remains to be seen.
Increased Vigilance of Stigma Discovery
Confronting a threatening stigma-related situation (see situation
in Figure 1), being under ample affective distress (see affective
implications in Figure 1), and perceiving oneself as incapable of
hiding a stigma (see self-evaluative implications in Figure 1) could
lead to increased vigilance for cues that one’s stigmatized status
may be suspected (see the links from situation, affective implica-
tions, and self-evaluative implications to cognitive implications in
Figure 1). Individuals with a concealable status may protect them-
selves by closely attending to social interactions, monitoring the
actions and discerning the potential perspectives of interaction
partners. This may be a useful strategy for determining whether an
interaction partner suspects a stigma and how this person may
react (or be reacting) to knowledge of this stigma. This also allows
the stigmatized person to think ahead to potential paths that can be
taken if the interaction partner, in fact, ascertains the hidden
stigma. Being so vigilant in social interactions, though, can have
negative psychological consequences. The link in the present
model between the cognitive and behavioral implications suggests
that such vigilance may negatively impact the interpersonal be-
havior of an individual with a concealable stigma.
Frable, Blackstone, and Scherbaum (1990) found evidence of
this in their study of mindfulness in women with master status
conditions, which were defined as those traits that occur relatively
infrequently in the U.S. population, whether valued or devalued
(e.g., attractiveness, deformity), visible or concealable (e.g.,
wealth, poverty). In their study, mindfulness involved paying close
attention to one’s surroundings and thinking ahead to potential
paths that social situations may take. They cited evidence that
supports the construct of mindfulness as the ability to adjust to
ever-changing situations (e.g., Chanowitz & Langer, 1981; Langer,
1989; Langer & Piper, 1987). The master status conditions were
analyzed in four groups: (a) visibly devalued (i.e., being facially
scarred, 60 pounds overweight, or Black), (b) invisibly devalued
(i.e., having a bisexual identity, rape history, or incest history), (c)
visibly valued (i.e., being physically attractive, having been de-
fined as being either a prom queen or model), and (d) invisibly
valued (i.e., being very wealthy, athletic, intelligent, or talented).
The researchers paired each master status individual with a non-
master-status individual in order to determine whether master
status individuals were more mindful in social interactions. They
found that, despite the fact that those people with any master status
conditions exhibited more mindfulness in social interactions, those
with a concealable status were more likely to take the perspective
of their interaction partner and remember what their partner said
than were individuals with a visible master status.
Concealing a stigma in difficult situations may make the stig-
matized person suspicious. In one study, women who role played
having a lesbian identity and concealing this identity engaged in
more paranoid social cognition in the interaction than did women
who disclosed this pretend identity or those who were assigned to
a neutral role play (Santuzzi & Ruscher, 2002). Their thoughts
were marked by self-consciousness and expectations of negative
evaluation from their interaction partner. As this effect was strong
enough to be found in a study that asked individuals to role play
possessing a concealable stigma, it seems that this suspiciousness
would be even greater for those who actually possess the stigma.
Similar to participants in the study by Frable et al. (1990), partic-
ipants in this study may have been suspicious that their interaction
partner was detecting indications of the stigma. Despite the limi-
tations of this study (e.g., the participants were only role playing
having a concealable stigma, not actually stigmatized), the notion
that individuals with a concealable stigma may be paranoid is
consistent with the overall association between secrecy and cog-
Individuals with a visible stigma escape many of the cognitive
burdens faced by individuals with a concealable stigma. Undoubt-
edly, individuals with either a visible or concealable stigma may
experience cognitive difficulties such as preoccupation, vigilance,
and suspiciousness (e.g., Mendoza-Denton et al., 2002). Yet, the
cognitive difficulties of concealing a stigma are of a unique nature
in that they are additionally characterized by cognitive preoccu-
pation with giving off clues of the stigma, vigilance of the possi-
bility that the stigma is suspected, and suspiciousness that one’s
stigma has been discovered. For an individual with a concealable
stigma, these challenges pave the way for negative affective states,
behavioral difficulties, and negative self-evaluation in accordance
with the present model, as addressed in the following sections.
As noted previously, the present model draws on past experi-
mental evidence to conceptualize the influence of cognition and
affect as bidirectional, with each influencing the other in addition
to influencing behavior and self-evaluation (e.g., Bower, 1981;
Bowers, 1973; Meichenbaum, 1972; Teasdale & Russell, 1983).
Further, situational features impact both cognition and affect (e.g.,
Mischel & Shoda, 1995). The cognitive preoccupation, avoidance,
and suspiciousness experienced by individuals with a concealable
stigma are proposed to foster negative affective states, which are
reviewed below. These negative affective states, in turn, may
increase preoccupation, vigilance, and suspiciousness.
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
The emerging area of secrecy research (e.g., Kelly, 2002) pro-
vides evidence that possessing a secret, such as a concealable
stigma, may lead to emotional strain. Keeping one’s stigma hidden
is likely to be motivated by fears of negative evaluation and the
avoidance of rejection in situations of the type described earlier.
Although keeping shameful secrets permits individuals to escape
potential evaluation and rejection, Kelly (1998) reviewed substan-
tial evidence suggesting that those who keep personal secrets tend
to be more lonely, shy, introverted, and socially anxious and have
a higher need to be alone than do those without a tendency toward
secret keeping (e.g., Cepeda-Benito & Short, 1998; Cramer &
Lake, 1998; Gesell, 1999; Ichiyama, Colbert, Laramore, & Heim,
1993; Larson & Chastain, 1990).
Secret keeping, by nature, is shameful. The mere act of hiding
information about a stigma may lead an individual to believe that
the stigma-related information is shameful simply because it is
worthy of being hidden (Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis,
1993; Kelly, 2002). Research attests to the notion that secrecy is
linked to problematic self-perceptions (see Kelly, 2002, for a
thorough review of this research). For example, individuals who
concealed an ambiguous test score rated the score more negatively
than individuals who disclosed the very same test score (Fishbein
& Laird, 1979). This particular study suggests that those who
concealed the test score came to see this information more nega-
tively than those who did not simply because they engaged in the
processes associated with hiding. Individuals who conceal infor-
mation about themselves over a substantial period of time may
come to perceive this concealed information as shameful and see
their overall selves in a negative light. The self-perception model
of secrecy is derived from Bem’s (1972) theory that people use
their behavior to label ambiguous internal states (Fishbein & Laird,
1979; Kelly, 2002)
Some research has specifically addressed the relationship be-
tween stigma-related secrets and negative emotions. Using an
11-day experience sampling methodology, Frable et al. (1998)
found that students at an elite university who possessed a conceal-
able stigma reported lower social confidence, higher anxiety,
higher depression, and lower self-esteem than did visibly stigma-
tized and nonstigmatized students. In their concealable and stig-
matized group, the researchers included those students who indi-
cated that they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual; bulimic; or from
low-income families. They found that participants with a conceal-
able stigma reported more negative affect than did other partici-
pants. Frable et al. (1998) provided data demonstrating that the
greater social isolation of individuals with a concealable stigma
does not explain these findings. However, they did find that the
presence of similar others increased the positive affect of these
participants. Sadly, though, these participants were the least likely
to experience such contact. The fact that participants with a con-
cealable stigma experienced more negative affect than even those
participants with a visible stigma suggests that a stigma’s conceal-
ability moderates the link between possessing a stigma and expe-
riencing negative emotion.
The cognitive difficulties of concealing can lead to emotional
difficulties. One test of this link followed 442 women for 2 years
after having had an abortion (Major & Gramzow, 1999). Women
who perceived abortion as stigmatizing reported a greater need to
keep their abortion a secret from close others. This secrecy was
associated with more thought suppression and intrusions of the
type described by Lane and Wegner (1995) in their preoccupation
model of secrecy. Increased thought suppression and intrusions were
associated with increased psychological distress (i.e., depression, anx-
iety, and hostility) over the 2-year follow-up. Disclosure of feelings
related to the abortion moderated the relationship between thought
intrusions and distress. That is, disclosure was associated with de-
creases in anxiety, depression, and hostility among women who
reported experiencing intrusive thoughts of their abortion, but it was
unrelated to these variables among women who did not report intru-
sive thoughts. This study supports the link from cognition to affect in
the present model (see Figure 1).
Other studies provide evidence that concealing a nonhetero-
sexual orientation is associated with more emotional distress, such
as depression, than is disclosing this orientation. In one such study,
gay men who concealed reported more depression and poorer
overall psychological well-being than did those who disclosed
(Ullrich, Lutgendorf, & Stapleton, 2003). In a 14-day experience
sampling study, 33 lesbians and 51 gay men reported greater
psychological well-being (e.g., self-acceptance, purpose in life,
autonomy, mastery) on days when they disclosed their sexual
orientation compared with days when they concealed their orien-
tation (Beals, 2004). The individuals’ experience of social support
mediated this association. Also, active suppression of thoughts
about sexual orientation predicted lower psychological well-being
at the end of each day and at 2-month follow-up.
Those who hide a history of mental health treatment may
similarly experience emotional distress. Both avoidance of stigma-
related disclosure as well as avoidance of individuals who might
discover one’s mental health history were associated with greater
rates of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, and confused thinking
in 164 psychiatric patients (Link, Mirotznik, & Cullen, 1991).
Secrecy partially explained the correlation between the perceived
mental illness-related discrimination and negative affect. Hiding a
stigma prevents individuals from engaging in corrective experi-
ences in which they learn that others may not be as likely as
initially supposed to discriminate against them because of their
status. This may be one way in which concealing leads to distress.
This possibility is further explored in following sections (see the
Behavioral Implications and Self-Evaluative Implications sec-
Concealing an HIV status may be associated with unique con-
sequences not associated with concealing other stigmas. In fact,
more research exists on the affective consequences associated with
the stigma of HIV infection than on any other concealable stigma.
Diseases that are progressive and incurable, that are not well
understood by the public, and for which the person with the disease
can be seen as morally responsible for contracting lead to difficult
psychological consequences (Goffman, 1963; Herek, 1999; Jones
et al., 1984). Because HIV combines these features in addition to
myriad personal, legal, and social implications, people with HIV
are particularly vulnerable to emotional distress in relevant situa-
tions. People with HIV who disclose their status may experience
emotional distress as a result of the ensuing rejection, abuse, or
violence (North & Rothenberg, 1993; Parsons et al., 2004). How-
ever, those who conceal an HIV-positive status may also experi-
ence emotional distress.
In one study of ethnically diverse HIV-positive men and
women, those who had not disclosed their HIV status to their sex
partners exhibited more emotional distress than did those who had
disclosed this information (Kalichman & Nachimson, 1999). Spe-
cifically, participants who had not disclosed their HIV status
indicated more psychoticism, somatic anxiety, hostility, and pho-
bic anxiety on a mental health symptom inventory. In another
study at an HIV clinic in France, 174 HIV-positive patients re-
ported that fear of rejection was the main reason for not revealing
their HIV status (Le ´vy et al., 1999). Nearly one quarter of this
sample waited at least 1 year before disclosing their HIV status to
another person. Three quarters of participants who disclosed their
HIV status asked that their secret be respected. Still, 30% of these
individuals later learned that their confidence had been broken, and
another 18% suspected that it had been broken. It is interesting that
only half of the participants planned their disclosure. The other
half reported that their disclosure was a spontaneous act in re-
sponse to the increasingly unbearable psychological distress of
suppressing key information about their identity (i.e., the link from
affect to disclosure in Figure 1).
The findings by Le ´vy et al. (1999) challenge the widely held
assumption that HIV disclosure occurs as a result of social respon-
sibility or special trust in another person. These findings also speak
to the emotionally distressing nature of concealing a stigma. Still,
these findings challenge the notion that disclosure of a concealable
stigma always results in positive emotional consequences. In fact,
the authors noted that many of their participants reported anxiety,
uneasiness, and sadness after disclosing their HIV status.
Clearly, individuals with HIV face unique consequences not
faced by those with a stigma that is visible to others. Family
members of an individual with HIV may experience similar emo-
tional repercussions as a result of concealing a courtesy stigma—
the stigma of being associated with a stigmatized individual (Goff-
man, 1963). Preliminary evidence for the emotional consequences
of bearing a courtesy stigma shows that children who keep their
mothers’ HIV-positive status a secret are likely to experience some
degree of anxiety, mostly related to concerns of their secret being
found out and a desire to protect their mothers (Murphy, Roberts,
& Hoffman, 2002).
Ethnicity may influence the association between HIV conceal-
ment and emotional distress. For Latina women with HIV, greater
emotional distress was associated with greater disclosure, whereas
such a relationship was not found for African American or Cau-
casian women (Comer, Henker, Kemeny, & Wyatt, 2000). This
difference may be due to cultural differences in reactions to this
particular stigma or cultural differences in the personal experience
of this stigma. Future researchers will need to determine the causal
direction between disclosure and emotional distress. Yet, these
studies offer evidence that disclosing a stigma, especially one that
is very likely to elicit negative reactions from others, is not always
associated with positive psychological outcomes.
It seems that when shame or fear of rejection motivate secrecy
in given situations, individuals with a concealable stigma may be
particularly likely to suffer emotionally. Two of the above studies
bring together research on the cognitive as well as affective im-
plications of concealing a stigma and offer support for the
cognitive–affective causal link in the current model (see Figure 1).
Specifically, Major and Gramzow (1999) and Beals (2004) offered
evidence that active suppression of stigma-related information
leads to greater psychological distress, likely as a consequence of
stigma-related thought intrusions. These studies suggest that, in
certain situations, concealing may lead to cognitive burdens that
lead to emotional difficulties. Whereas individuals with a visible
stigma face the emotional stress of being devalued, individuals
with a concealable stigma must choose between this stress and the
emotional stress of hiding.
Possessing a visible stigma may cause disruptions of interper-
sonal interactions (e.g., Hebl, Tickle, & Heatherton, 2000). Con-
cealing a stigma may also cause disruptions in interpersonal inter-
actions, albeit through different mechanisms than with visible
stigmas. Specifically, concealable stigmas may lead to interper-
sonal disruptions through increased self-monitoring and impres-
sion management, behavioral performance deficits, increased so-
cial avoidance and isolation, and the increased importance of
feedback in shaping behavior. These behavioral implications are
reviewed below. As suggested in the present model, cognitive and
affective states mediate the influence of situational features on this
eventual behavior (e.g., Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Also, as is
reviewed later, behavior and self-evaluation influence each other,
and behavior also influences the nature of subsequent situations.
Impression Management and Self-Monitoring
Individuals with a concealable stigma must decide whether and
how to present their stigma according to their assessment of a
given situation. Clearly, those with a visible stigma cannot choose
whether to present their stigma; they can only decide how to
manage the impression it makes in various situations. Whereas
visibly stigmatized individuals may engage in impression manage-
ment strategies to compensate for a perceived lack of normality or
competence, individuals with a concealable status engage in them
to prevent their stigma from being discovered. Individuals with
concealable stigmas may expend much energy to ensure that
stigma-related “leakages” do not occur (Goffman, 1963). How-
ever, the avoidance of these information leakages cannot be guar-
anteed, and individuals must use additional energy to repair their
self-presentations when they unintentionally reveal stigma-related
information. An individual who is hiding a Parkinson’s disease
diagnosis would have to quickly concoct an explanation for his
uncontrollably trembling hands. Creating an excuse, such as ner-
vousness, may be complicated, as convincing explanations are not
always easy to create. Clearly, conveying a nonstigmatized status
requires much conscious effort on the part of the stigmatized
individual, and even then it is not guaranteed to work without fail.
Ample research on impression management and deception attests
to the distress associated with concealing information—such as a
romantic affair—and presenting a false impression of oneself—
such as lying about one’s sexual orientation (e.g., Burgoon &
Buller, 1994; DePaulo, Ansfield, Kirkendol, & Boden, 2004;
Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2005).
Evidence suggests that many people with a concealed stigma
engage in impression management behaviors. Individuals report-
ing this behavior include lesbians and gay men (Cain, 1991;
Pachankis & Goldfried, 2006; Woods & Harbeck, 1991), former
psychiatric patients (Herman, 1993; Link et al., 1991; Matthews &
Harrington, 2000), those who are involuntarily childless (Miall,
1986), and those with invisible physical disabilities (Matthews &
Harrington, 2000; Rintamaki & Brashers, 2005). Three quarters of
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
the gay male students in a study by Pachankis and Goldfried
(2006) reported that they had attempted to change their behavior as
a result of fear of being rejected because of their sexual orientation.
Participants noted such attempts as modifying the tone or content
of their speech, modifying their mannerisms (e.g., posture, ges-
tures), changing the way they walked, lying (mostly about the sex
of a romantic partner), and trying to appear more masculine (or
less feminine). Such behaviors can be conceptualized as attempts
to avoid making the concealable stigma obvious and thus to avoid
the ensuing rejection and negative evaluation. Figure 1 depicts this
relationship between affective implications (e.g., fear of negative
evaluation) and behavioral implications (e.g., avoidance).
Impression management attempts are associated with noticeable
consequences, including verbal and nonverbal behaviors such as
increased response latency and decreased eye contact (J. O.
Greene, O’Hair, Cody, & Yen, 1985). Deceivers display a variety
of noticeable verbal and nonverbal behaviors including speaking in
a higher pitched voice and displaying more hesitation, eye blink-
ing, and speech errors than do those who are telling the truth (see
DePaulo, 1992, for a review). DePaulo (1992) explained such
findings in terms of the increased anxiety experienced by those
who are motivated to deceive. It remains to be seen whether such
consequences exist for those who are motivated to conceal a
The construct of self-monitoring is closely tied to impression
management (e.g., Snyder, 1987). People may attempt to change
their behavior out of fear of being identified by their stigma.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents may engage in continual
self-monitoring of their behavior lest they give off clues of their
discreditable sexual orientation (Hetrick & Martin, 1987). Al-
though past research has not addressed the link between conceal-
ment of a stigma and increased self-monitoring behavior, this link
may exist, given the evidence of increased fear of negative eval-
uation and the potentially strong motivation to appear nonstigma-
tized for individuals who conceal a hidden devalued trait.
Social Avoidance and Isolation
Individuals with a concealable stigma may also choose to com-
pletely avoid situations in which they may be rejected. In fact,
research suggests that avoidance of others is a common strategy
for circumventing the negative cognitive and affective conse-
quences of concealing a stigma (e.g., Corrigan & Matthews, 2003;
Croteau, 1996; Link et al., 1991; Remennick, 2000). Goffman
(1963) noted that individuals with a concealable stigma cope with
their stigma by avoiding close relationships. Fears of rejection and
negative evaluation may prevent an individual from disclosing and
may also prevent him or her from attaining necessary support.
Many researchers have documented the importance of support in
the lives of stigmatized individuals (e.g., Goldfried & Goldfried,
2001; Hershberger & D’Augelli, 1995; Peterson, Folkman, &
Bakeman, 1996). Possessing a stigma that is invisible to others
leaves individuals with the choice to remain quiet about their
stigma and, thus, to miss out on opportunities to receive important
Many individuals with a concealable stigma may, in fact, live
without such support. Individuals who are gay, bulimic, or poor
may be less likely to be in social situations than are their visibly
stigmatized or nonstigmatized peers (Frable, Platt, & Hoey, 1998).
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents are quite adept at hiding
their stigma, which can lead them to experience increased isolation
and distress (Hetrick & Martin, 1987). These youth seem to
experience more social anxiety than do their heterosexual peers,
which may be related to less contact with supportive friends or
adults who could serve as a buffer against stigma-related distress
(Safren & Pantalone, 2006). The relinquishment of support may
also make it hard to form a positive identity. One study found that
gay men who concealed their sexual orientation had difficulty
forming a positive gay identity (Frable, Wortman, & Joseph,
1997). Concealment may also preclude the receipt of even more
essential help. For instance, Jones et al. (1984) reported that fear of
negative evaluation may lead some mentally ill individuals to
forfeit receiving mental health treatment under their health insur-
ance coverage (see the affective–behavioral path in Figure 1).
Increased Importance of Interpersonal Feedback
Another unique behavioral consequence of possessing a hidden
stigma may be the relative importance of feedback in shaping behav-
ior. Hiding a stigma precludes feedback regarding the stigma and,
thus, the formation of positive evaluations of one’s entire self—
disclosing a stigmatized aspect of his or her identity may greatly
impact feelings of self-worth and subsequent behavior.
McKenna and Bargh (1998) examined the impact of positive
and negative feedback on the behavior of individuals who dis-
closed their concealable stigma through an online message-posting
group. For 3 weeks, the researchers compared the message post-
ings of visibly stigmatized individuals (e.g., those who stuttered or
were overweight or bald), nonvisibly stigmatized individuals (e.g.,
those who were gay, used drugs, or had a sexual fetish), and those
who were not stigmatized (e.g., those who had various popular
culture interests). Participants with a concealable devalued trait
posted messages less frequently in response to negative feedback
and more frequently in response to positive, affirming feedback
than did other participants. Whether someone reveals a strongly
stigmatized identity may depend on the reactions that he or she
expects to receive or has received in the past. Some individuals
with a concealable stigma, for example, may have been treated as
awkward, dangerous, incompetent, or insecure upon previous dis-
closure of their stigma. It seems reasonable, then, that the feedback
that an individual receives about his or her stigmatized identity has
the potential to shape subsequent behavior, including whether to
disclose the stigma in the future, through the process outlined in
the model depicted in Figure 1.
Maladaptive Behavior in Close Relationships
Individuals with a concealable stigma may also face unique
challenges in their close relationships. Individuals with HIV, for
example, note that close relationships are sources of stress (Harvey
& Wenzel, 2002). Goffman (1963) suggested that when a stigma is
concealable, short-term interactions may proceed quite normally.
However, longer term relationships may suffer, especially when
the individual with a concealable stigma engages in attempts to
pass as nonstigmatized. Much research attests to the importance of
self-disclosure for the development and maintenance of close
relationships (e.g., Cozby, 1972; Derlega & Berg, 1987; Halverson
& Shore, 1969). Concealment can lead to feelings of guilt or
anxiety in a close relationship, and it may also prevent the con-
cealer from accessing the benefits of becoming fully known to
another person. Disclosure, though, can also lead to close relation-
ship difficulties. For instance, if someone conceals a stigma from
his or her close partner for many years, the partner is likely to react
poorly when and if this information is ever disclosed. As more
time passes, the concealer may feel increasingly guilty that he or
she has duped a close other or increasingly anxious that his or her
secret stigma may be discovered.
Concealing a stigma seems to be associated with a range of
behavioral difficulties including self-monitoring, impression man-
agement, social avoidance and isolation, the increased impact of
others’ feedback on future behaviors, and challenges to close
relationships. The model presented in Figure 1 proposes that the
cognitive and affective implications of concealing a stigma cause
these behavioral difficulties. Similar to the cognitive–affective–
behavioral rejection sensitivity model of Downey and Feldman
(1996), in which an individual comes to anxiously expect, readily
perceive, and subsequently overreact to social rejection, the
present model suggests that negative mood states and cognitive
biases lead to the behavioral outcomes reviewed here. For in-
stance, increased preoccupation (Smart & Wegner, 1999) or in-
creased vigilance (Frable et al., 1990) may impact behavior in such
a way that the stigmatized individual may appear distracted or
uninterested. In addition, the increased anxiety that accompanies
deception may lead to behavioral consequences, such as increased
response latency or decreased eye contact (DePaulo, 1992). At this
point, evidence supports the notion that individuals who conceal a
stigma experience behavioral consequences not necessarily expe-
rienced by those with a visible stigma. Many agree that cognition
and affect impact the behavior of all people (e.g., Bem & Allen,
1974; Bowers, 1973; Mischel & Shoda, 1995), but more evidence
is needed to support the notion that cognition and affect impact the
behavior of individuals with a concealable stigma, specifically.
This will help to further verify the process of the present model.
In addition to the cognitive, affective, and behavioral conse-
quences of concealing a stigma, the self-evaluative consequences
of concealing and the interaction between those consequences and
the consequences discussed above must also be considered. Many
have recognized the importance of considering self-evaluation in
the context of cognition, affect, and behavior as in the model
proposed here (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Burns, 1979; Epstein & Er-
skine, 1983; Goldfried & Robins, 1982; Magnusson, 1990; Markus
& Wurf, 1987). As described below, hiding a stigma is likely
associated with unique self-evaluative implications that interact
with all of the other psychological implications discussed thus far,
serving to maintain the distressing cycle of concealment.
If an individual hides information related to his or her stigma, he
or she may escape the direct experience of prejudice and discrim-
ination directed toward that stigma. However, it is unlikely that an
individual can escape knowledge that society devalues the stigma.
Recognizing others’ devaluation of one’s stigma may lead to
negative self-regard. Although stigmatized individuals are not
necessarily at risk for experiencing lower self-esteem than non-
stigmatized individuals, most of the studies that support this notion
have been conducted with visibly stigmatized individuals (see
Crocker & Major, 1989, for a review). It is possible that concealing
a stigma may lead to self-evaluative difficulties not experienced by
those who benefit from the protective properties of membership in
a visibly stigmatized group. This possibility is elaborated below.
Hiding a stigmatized core aspect of oneself may lead to identity
ambivalence—an inconsistent view of oneself across situations or
time. Working-class students at an elite ivy league law school have
been shown to adopt identities and self-presentations consistent
with the identities and behaviors of their classmates from elite
social classes (Granfield, 1991). The concealment of this working-
class background allowed students to participate in the elite law
school culture, reaping the rewards of high paying internships and
job offers. However, the costs of such concealment included
feelings of guilt, fraudulence, and betrayal of the social class and
families from which they came. Identity ambivalence, then, is one
way that concealing a stigma may result in negative self-
Lack of Access to Group-Based Self-Protective
Individuals with a concealable stigma cannot access the bene-
ficial self-evaluative properties of stigma described by Crocker
and Major (1989). Examples of these benefits include attributing
negative feedback to one’s stigmatized group membership rather
than one’s personal shortcomings or comparing oneself to others
who share the stigma instead of to those who are not stigmatized.
Individuals with a concealable stigma who are not able to access
these group-based protections may come to internalize the nega-
tive feedback that they receive, which may result in negative
self-evaluations and low self-esteem.
Negative View of Self
Data suggest that individuals with a concealable stigma may
experience lower self-esteem than do individuals with a visible
stigma or no stigma at all (Frable et al., 1998). This lower self-
esteem may follow either the greater attributional ambiguity ex-
perienced by those individuals who cannot attribute negative feed-
back to stigmatized group membership or from the diminished
opportunity to compare oneself with other members of the stig-
matized group (see above). In fact, participants who had a con-
cealable stigma in the study by Frable et al. (1998) were least
likely to find themselves in the presence of similar others, a fact
that the authors suggest could have led to these participants’ lower
Low self-esteem in HIV-positive gay men has been shown to
lead to the avoidance of seeking potentially beneficial social
support (Nicholson & Long, 1990). In a separate study of people
living with HIV, avoidance of potential social support was shown
to lead to increased psychological distress (Heckman et al., 2004).
This cycle of low self-esteem, avoidance, and distress is one likely
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
way in which concealing a stigma may lead to negative psycho-
logical outcomes, consistent with the model presented in this
Self-efficacy, an individual’s belief that he or she can effectively
perform a desired behavior under specified conditions, plays an
important role in the present model. Experimental evidence sup-
ports the placement of self-efficacy within the domain of self-
evaluation in the present model, where it impacts and is impacted
by the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of the cycle
(e.g., Bandura, 1988; Bandura, Adams, & Beyer, 1977; Bandura,
Cioffi, Taylor, & Brouillard, 1988; Bandura, Reese, & Adams,
1982; Cervone, Kopp, Schaumann, & Scott, 1994; Salovey &
Birnbaum, 1989). The findings of a study by Kalichman and
Nachimson (1999) with a sample of 266 sexually active HIV-
positive men and women tentatively support the links between
self-efficacy and behavior in the context of concealing. In this
study, concealing an HIV-positive status from sex partners was
associated with low self-efficacy for HIV disclosure, less condom
use, and less condom-use self-efficacy. Further, individuals who
concealed their HIV-positive status from their sex partners re-
ported greater affective distress including hostility, somatic anxi-
ety, psychoticism, and phobic anxiety than those who disclosed
their status. This affective distress may be the cause and the result
of low self-efficacy.
Beyond suggesting that concealing a stigma is associated with
affective, behavioral, cognitive, and self-evaluation outcomes, this
study offers some support for specific links in the present model
(e.g., the link between self-efficacy and behavior).
Maintenance of the Overall Cycle Through Self-
Besides experiencing the self-evaluative implications that di-
rectly arise from concealing a stigma (such as increased identity
ambivalence and lack of access to group-based attributions), one
may also form a negative view of oneself simply as a result of
experiencing the negative cognitive, affective, and behavioral im-
plications reviewed in the previous sections. For example, a neg-
ative self-image can impact cognitions (e.g., “My secret stigma is
shameful and I am a worse person for possessing it”), affect (e.g.,
depression, anxiety), and behavior (e.g., impression management
attempts to conceal the shameful stigma, the avoidance of situa-
tions likely to heighten shame-related cognition and affect). Each
of these domains, in turn, can further heighten negative self-
evaluation. Links highlighting the bidirectional influence of self-
evaluation on cognition, affect, and behavior are depicted as
double-headed arrows in Figure 1.
Thus, although individuals with a concealable stigma may es-
cape the negative effects of direct discrimination, they may expe-
rience psychological complications arising from the need to hide
their stigma; a lack of genuine feedback about themselves; and the
consequences of problematic cognition, affect, and behavior on
Review of the Cycle
So far, this article has reviewed evidence suggesting that
individuals with a concealable stigma face unique psychologi-
cal consequences as a result of possessing discrediting infor-
mation that must be negotiated across many situations. These
psychological consequences fall under the domains of cogni-
tion, affect, behavior, and self-evaluation, and the present
model incorporates these domains in a process model. Figure 1
illustrates the proposed links of this model and highlights the
interrelated and cyclical nature of the individual domains re-
viewed above. In many interpersonal situations, the individual
with a concealable stigma must decide whether to conceal or
disclose the stigma. Certain aspects of the situation influence
one’s cognitive–affective functioning and ultimately the deci-
sion to disclose. According to the model, concealment is most
difficult in those situations in which the stigma is salient, the
threat of it being discovered is high, and the consequences of it
being discovered are severe. An individual with a concealable
stigma will likely face cognitive and affective consequences,
such as self-consciousness, vigilance, shame, and guilt when
concealing in these situations. These cognitive and affective
components are closely related and impact each other. Cogni-
tion and affect lead to behavioral consequences including im-
pression management, social avoidance and isolation, increased
importance of feedback from others, and impaired relationship
functioning. The experience of these difficulties may, then, lead
to negative self-evaluative consequences such as identity am-
bivalence and low self-efficacy. For example, avoidance of
social situations may lead to low self-esteem as one comes to
see oneself negatively because he or she is isolated from others.
Negative self-evaluation may itself lead to cognitive, affective,
and behavioral difficulties in encountered situations (e.g., an
individual with low self-efficacy for concealing may avoid
social interactions). Finally, one’s past behavior and self-
evaluation of that behavior influences the experience of future
interpersonal situations, including the decision to disclose or
conceal in those situations or to possibly avoid such situations
Consider the case of a gay male teenager who decides to conceal
his sexual orientation as a function of the stigma salience, threat of
discovery, and consequences of discovery at a family reunion. He
may find himself burdened by intrusive thoughts or dread about
the stigma in various encounters at this event. His intrusive
thoughts may lead to attempts to suppress those thoughts and,
eventually, to exacerbated negative mood. His negative mood and
preoccupation with thoughts of discovery may subsequently cause
him to behave awkwardly at the reunion, especially when extended
family members ask him if he has a girlfriend. His awkwardly
avoidant response (or outright lie) may cause him to see himself
and his stigma negatively, which may also adversely impact his
subsequent cognitive, affective, and behavioral functioning. He
may seek to avoid similar situations in the future, a strategy that
may also impair his mental health and family relationships and is
likely to preclude efficacious interactions with his environment.
Disclosure of his stigma could potentially interrupt this cycle and
bring him to a higher level of functioning, but disclosure can also
come at a cost.
How to Break the Cycle
There are excellent reviews of the costs and benefits to be
weighed in deciding whether to reveal potentially stigmatizing
information (e.g., Derlega & Berg, 1987; K. Greene et al. 2003;
Holmes & River, 1998; Kelly & McKillop, 1996; Larson &
Chastain, 1990). Beyond deciding whether to disclose a stigma on
the basis of an analysis of these costs and benefits, however,
individuals with a concealable stigma can consider breaking the
distressing cycle at any place along the route depicted in Figure 1.
Appropriately attributing negative psychological outcomes to
concealing a stigma, instead of to personal flaws or deficiencies,
can alleviate some of the distress experienced by stigmatized
individuals (Miller & Major, 2000). It is important to make such
reattributions only in situations in which this is appropriate and
only in the presence of clear situational cues that negative out-
comes are a likely result of stigma-related difficulties (Miller &
Major, 2000). The gay teenager in the above example, for instance,
can reattribute his awkward behavior in his interaction with his
extended family as a necessary response to their unfortunate in-
sensitivity, their obliviousness to the range of possible sexual
orientations, or their possible bias against nonheterosexual identi-
ties. Reattributing distress to the difficulties associated with hiding
a key attribute of oneself may enable some individuals with a
concealable stigma to see that they are not flawed or otherwise
deficient. In the present model, self-evaluation allows such a
reattribution to positively impact subsequent thoughts, feelings,
and behavior as well as the nature of future situations.
Individuals with a concealable stigma may elect to selectively
disclose their stigmatized status to safe others. Numerous studies
have supported the notion that emotional or personal self-
disclosure can be positively associated with mental well-being
(e.g., Jourard, 1971; Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).
For decades, many have proffered theories of the self-esteem boost
that results from self-disclosure. The early writings of the symbolic
interactionists (e.g., Cooley, 1902/1922; Dewey, 1922; Mead,
1934) postulated that people form their self-concepts through their
interactions with others and that positive interactions lead to pos-
itive self-concepts. In the early 1970s Jourard (1971) proposed that
an individual forms a positive self-concept only when presenting
his or her true self to others. In presenting his or her true self, the
individual receives genuine feedback about that self—feedback
that contributes to the formation of an authentic self-concept.
Jourard postulated that only in presenting one’s true self can an
individual become fully known to others and, thus, to oneself.
Individuals who conceal a stigma may be cut off from genuine
social interactions in which feedback helps establish a positive
self-concept. They may note the discrepancy between their true
self and the self that they present to others, resulting in feelings of
inauthenticity, as if they are living a lie. The more central one’s
stigmatized status is to one’s self-concept, the more threatening a
lack of feedback may be to the eventual development of a positive
sense of self.
More recent evidence has suggested that disclosure of a stigma-
tized identity is associated with (and may indeed lead to) greater
self-acceptance. In one study, disclosing about the lesbian identity
of one’s mother was correlated with higher self-esteem in a sample
of 76 adolescent children of lesbian mothers (Gershon, Tschann, &
Jemerin, 1999). Similarly, gay men who have disclosed their
sexual orientation to their mothers have higher self-esteem (Savin-
Williams, 1989). Herek (2003) explained why self-disclosure of
one’s nonheterosexual orientation may be beneficial. Specifically,
he suggested that because nonheterosexual orientations are often
highly stigmatizing in U.S. society, disclosing one’s nonhetero-
sexual orientation can be personally affirming and is an important
part of self-acceptance and forming a positive identity. The present
model suggests that this more positive self-evaluation occurs as a
result of the positive feedback that one may receive upon disclo-
sure. This particular process is highlighted by the disclosure–
feedback–self-evaluation link depicted in Figure 1.
Empirical evidence supports this link. Specifically, participation
in an online message group in one study led to greater importance
of a stigmatized identity for those with stigmatized sexual identi-
ties or sociopolitical ideologies. This increased stigma importance,
in turn, led to greater self-acceptance and a higher likelihood of
coming out to family and friends about this identity (McKenna &
Bargh, 1998). This suggests that when people with a concealable
stigma receive positive feedback about their stigma, they are more
motivated to bring their hidden selves in line with their presented
selves. For some time now, others have noted that congruity
between private and public selves is associated with feelings of
self-worth and self-esteem (e.g., Baumeister, 1982). Because of
this, it is very likely that despite its costs, disclosing can alleviate
the difficulties inherent in hiding, especially hiding a core aspect of
However, it is important to keep in mind that concealment
often serves as an adaptation to hostile environments. Individ-
uals with a concealable stigma may wish to choose a realistic
placement of boundaries in the disclosure–concealment contin-
uum while recognizing the functional nature of concealment. In
doing so, they must consider the support that they are likely to
receive from various others. Individuals who plan to disclose
any secret may benefit from considering various qualities of
confidants that may predict their reaction to being told stigma-
tizing information (Kelly, 2002). Specifically, Kelly (2002)
suggests considering a confidant’s perceived discreetness and
the likelihood that they will negatively evaluate or reject the
person who discloses. In fact, evidence suggests that telling a
nonsupportive other can lead to poorer well-being than telling
no one at all. Those women who told close others about a recent
abortion but perceived them to be less than supportive of this
information adjusted more poorly to their abortion than did
women who did not tell or women who told another person
whom they perceived to be supportive (Major et al., 1990).
Clearly, individuals who have a concealable stigma must care-
fully evaluate the possible consequences of disclosing to others.
Earlier, this article highlighted the features of situations that are
likely to lead to negative psychological consequences in the pro-
posed model. It should also be noted that certain situational fea-
tures are likely to produce positive psychological consequences.
For instance, the presence of similar others, though it increases the
salience of one’s stigma, is not likely to be associated with nega-
tive psychological consequences. In fact, evidence suggests that
the presence of similar others can have beneficial outcomes for
individuals with a concealable stigma. For example, students who
were gay, bulimic, or from a working class background reported
more positive mood and increased self-esteem when in the pres-
ence of similar others (Frable et al., 1998). Probably because of the
concealable nature of their stigma, however, these students were
less likely than students with a visible stigma to be in such
situations. The presence of positive cues may also promote posi-
tive psychological consequences. For example, the presence of
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
gay-pride symbols convey acceptance and support and are likely to
lead to feelings of comfort for a gay person. When such situational
features are present, individuals may feel less compelled to hide
and thus less hampered by the negative consequences of hiding.
Individuals who similarly share a concealable stigma reflect for
each other the challenges involved in negotiating an identity that is
complicated by both stigma and concealability. Individuals who
conceal a stigma may have always perceived their stigma as
worthy of being hidden. Encounters with similar others offer
concealing individuals the opportunity to present their more gen-
uine selves—stigma and all—and to incorporate the feedback that
accrues from that more genuine self-presentation into a more
positive overall view of oneself. In addition, contact with similar
others allows for the eventual cognitive reattribution of the source
of one’s distress (through feedback from similar others and its
subsequent impact on self-evaluation). This reattribution is pref-
erable to attributing one’s distress to the possession of a stigma,
per se, as may occur in the absence of contact with similar others
(see the link between self-evaluative implications and cognitive,
affective, and behavioral implications in Figure 1).
Although the model focuses on the negative process of conceal-
ing a stigma, one can also use the model to understand the positive
process of disclosing a stigma. According to the model, positive
feedback toward more genuine behavior will lead to more positive
self-evaluations. These improved self-evaluations will not only
lead to more positive cognitions and affect but will also increase
the likelihood that the individual will enter more risky situations in
the future (e.g., disclosing to nonsimilar others). Success in these
situations will result in more positive cognitive, affective, and
behavioral outcomes in a cyclical, self-perpetuating manner.
Through examination of Figure 1, it is clear that disclosing in these
situations changes the nature of the situation. Specifically, once an
individual discloses and receives positive feedback, he or she is
likely to hold a more efficacious view of his or her ability to
succeed in such situations in the future. Of course, if positive
feedback is not forthcoming, the positive self-evaluative conse-
quences of disclosure and the subsequent willingness to take the
risk of future disclose may decrease. This may maintain the neg-
ative cycle. Yet, clinical experience suggests that once a critical
mass of success experiences has accrued, an individual’s positive
self-evaluation may be sufficiently strong to prevent reentry into
the negative cycle (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Goldfried & Robins,
1982). Part of this process is highlighted in Figure 1 as the
disclosure–feedback–self-evaluative implications link.
Summary of Different Implications of Concealable Versus
The psychological consequences reviewed above and the pro-
cess that links them differs from the consequences and process of
possessing a visible stigma. The cognitive–affective–behavioral
path in the present model may operate similarly for individuals
who possess concealable and visible stigmas. However, some of
the other pathways in the model, as well as the operation of the
process as a whole, may be unique to individuals with a conceal-
able stigma for three reasons. First, individuals who conceal a
stigma can never fully internalize feedback from others as feed-
back about one’s genuine self (i.e., the disclosure–feedback link in
Figure 1). Second, individuals who conceal a stigma forfeit the
benefits of protection provided by other stigmatized group mem-
bers. As a result, cognitive reattribution for one’s stigma-related
difficulties cannot readily occur, thereby leaving the individual to
assume personal responsibility for his or her distress (i.e., the
bidirectional links from self-evaluative implications in Figure 1).
Third, distress occurs not only from the consequences of possess-
ing a stigma but also from the fears that the stigma will be
discovered and punished. The impact of this fear of discovery on
behaviors such as avoidance is unique to concealing a stigma (i.e.,
the link from affective implications to behavioral implications in
Further, according to the research reviewed in previous sections,
it seems that the consequences within each domain (cognitive,
affective, behavioral, self-evaluative) differ for individuals with a
concealable versus a visible stigma. Whereas individuals with any
type of stigma, concealable or visible, may experience preoccupa-
tion, vigilance, and suspiciousness, individuals with a concealable
stigma are more likely to be preoccupied with giving off clues of
the stigma, vigilant of the possibility that the stigma is suspected,
and suspicious that their stigma has been discovered. Individuals
with a visible stigma are probably less concerned about disclosing
a secret and more concerned that their obvious stigma is interfering
with a given interaction. Although many individuals who face a
situational challenge, stigma related or not, may share the affective
implications discussed in this model (i.e., shame, fear of negative
evaluation, anxiety, depression, hostility, demoralization, guilt),
these implications are likely to be of a different quality when they
result from hiding a more-or-less core aspect of one’s identity. For
example, many individuals may doubt that they can convey a
desired impression of themselves and therefore expect negative
evaluation in a particular situation. However, individuals with a
concealable stigma may doubt that they can hide the stigmatized
aspects of themselves and thus expect the negative evaluative
consequences of being found out in that situation.
The behavioral consequences of stigma also seem particularly
likely to differ depending on whether the stigma is concealable or
visible. For example, although people with either type of stigma
may attempt to manage the impressions they convey, individuals
with a visible stigma are not likely to be concerned with giving off
the impression that they are stigmatized, because this is an obvious
fact in nearly all of their social interactions. Similarly, individuals
with a concealable stigma are likely to avoid social situations
because they fear that someone will discover their stigma and
subsequently reject, ridicule, or discriminate against them. In ad-
dition, however, these individuals may experience close relation-
ship impairment as a result of the cognitive and affective distress
that accompanies hiding an important part of their identity. As
individuals with an obvious stigma cannot hide their stigma, their
social functioning is not similarly impacted. Also, once they dis-
close their stigmatized identity, individuals with a concealable
stigma are likely to attach significant importance to the feedback
that they receive from others given the relative infrequency of its
occurrence. Individuals with a visible stigma probably do not
attach as much importance to every individual instance of feed-
back about their stigma, given the high frequency of such feed-
back, whether actual or only perceived.
Finally, the self-evaluative consequences of possessing a stigma
differ in a number of ways depending on whether the stigma is
hidden or concealed. Whereas individuals with a visible stigma
may see themselves negatively for possessing a stigma, individuals
with a concealable stigma may see themselves negatively not only
for possessing the stigma but also for keeping it hidden. Further,
when an individual hides a stigma, he or she cannot access positive
feedback from other members of the group. The absence of this
feedback may be associated with an overall view of oneself into
which one’s stigma is not fully integrated. Individuals with a
concealable stigma may also lack the efficacy to change their
stigma-related difficulties through disclosure to others.
The findings reviewed above do not prove that concealing a
stigma is any more distressing than contending with a visible
stigma. However, these findings and the proposed model that
incorporates them do seem to challenge the expectation of Jones et
al. (1984) that “individuals who have concealed marks would be
better adjusted than people whose blemish is apparent” (p. 35). Of
course, to more solidly test this claim, researchers must examine
the unique difficulties of concealing a stigma as well as the
specific pathways that link these difficulties in the proposed
model, as discussed next.
Future Research Directions
Researchers have found higher rates of psychopathology for
individuals with concealable stigmas compared with the general
population (e.g., Cochran, Greer Sullivan, & Mays, 2003; Cochran
& Mays, 2000; Gilman et al., 2001; Herrell et al., 1999; Sandfort,
de Graaf, Bijl, & Schnabel, 2001). Lest one conclude that these
higher rates are attributable to the stigma itself (as has been done
for homosexuality, see e.g., Cameron & Cameron, 1998), the
process model established here strongly suggests that the hidden
dimension of stigma impairs the psychological functioning of
individuals with a concealable stigma. In fact, recent conceptual-
izations of minority stress suggest that concealability may contrib-
ute unique variance to the overall functioning of stigmatized
individuals (Meyer, 2003).
Basic research in many areas of psychology support the process of
elements of a situation at least partially determine people’s behavior
in that situation (e.g., Bem & Allen, 1974; Bowers, 1973; Ekeham-
mar, 1974; Mischel, 1973; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Experimental
data also show that cognitive elements, such as an individual’s per-
ception of a situation, mediate the situation–behavior link (e.g.,
Meichenbaum, 1972) and that cognition and affect impact each other
in a bidirectional fashion (e.g., Bower, 1981; Schachter & Singer,
1962; Teasdale & Russell, 1983). Further, experimental data clearly
support the notion that an individual’s self-evaluation impacts his or
her behavior, cognition, and affect and that these psychological do-
mains, in turn, impact self-evaluation (e.g., Bandura, 1988; Bandura
& Adams, 1977; Bandura et al., 1988; Bandura, Reese, & Adams,
1982; Cervone et al., 1994; Harackiewicz, Sansone, & Manderlink,
1985; Salovey & Birnbaum, 1989). Taken together, this research
suggests that a cognitive–affective–behavioral–self-evaluation pro-
cess exists in response to general goals.
Researchers now face the task of determining whether this
process operates for individuals who have the specific goal of
concealing a stigma in stigma-related situations. In fact, some of
the studies reviewed in this article have already begun this task.
Although many of the studies reviewed here simply establish the
association between concealing a stigma and experiencing impair-
ment in one of the general domains (i.e., cognition, affect, behav-
ior, self-evaluation), some of these studies directly support the
proposed links of this model. For example, the study by Kalichman
and Nachimson (1999) suggested possible links between low self-
efficacy, risky behavior, and affective distress for people who
conceal their HIV-positive status. In addition, the studies by Major
and Gramzow (1999) and Beals (2004) offer evidence that one
process (e.g., active suppression of information about one’s con-
cealable stigma) may lead to other specific consequences (e.g.,
greater psychological distress) in the model. More research such as
this, with possible mediation analyses (e.g., suppression leads to
distress as a result of stigma-related thought intrusion), will further
support the proposed model. Preliminary evidence also suggests
that socializing with similarly stigmatized others may be a poten-
tially important way to break the distress cycle by increasing
positive affect and self-evaluation (Frable et al., 1998).
More research needs to focus on the currently untested links
between concealing a stigma and experiencing specific compo-
nents (e.g., preoccupation, anxiety, avoidance, low self-efficacy)
of each broad domain (i.e., cognition, affect, behavior, self-
evaluation) of the model. For example, researchers need to test the
proposition that individuals with a concealable stigma may evince
higher self-monitoring than do individuals without a concealable
stigma. Unfortunately, it is difficult to recruit large numbers of
participants who hide the characteristic that qualifies them for
participation in these studies. Still, some researchers have pro-
posed unique recruitment methods that, although costly, have the
potential to increase the feasibility of this task (e.g., Watters &
Because studies rarely include both visible and concealable
stigmas and because it is difficult to manipulate whether a stigma
is visible or concealable, one cannot unequivocally determine
which consequences are unique to concealable stigmas. Taken
together, though, the studies reviewed in this article suggest that
there are unique consequences of possessing a concealable stigma
that are not necessarily shared by individuals who possess a visible
stigma. The study by Frable et al. (1998) is ideal in that it directly
compared the experiences of individuals with concealable and
visible stigmas, finding that students with concealable stigmas
reported lower self-esteem and more negative affect. Further, the
study by Santuzzi and Ruscher (2002) took the novel approach of
randomly assigning participants to role play the experience of
possessing a concealable stigma in order to approximate the psy-
chological experience of concealing a stigma from others. Some-
what similarly, Smart and Wegner (1999) cleverly asked women
with and without an eating disorder to role play either having or
not having an eating disorder in order to manipulate the visibility
or concealability of that stigma. The researchers then determined
differences in the degree of cognitive interference in each of the
two groups. This area needs more studies using creative designs
like these to examine other unique implications of concealing a
Although not included in the present model, research supports
the notion that the negative psychological consequences of con-
cealing a stigma may lead to poorer physical health. The stress of
inhibiting emotional expression has been shown to lead to negative
physical health consequences (e.g., Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, &
Glaser, 1988; Richards, Beal, Seagal, & Pennebaker, 2000). In
addition, disclosing traumatic experiences or personal information
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF CONCEALING
about oneself has been shown to improve health functioning
through the alleviation of the anxiety and distress that accompanies
hiding this information (Bucci, 1995; Stiles, 1995). Two studies
provide convincing evidence that concealing a stigmatized iden-
tity, in particular, may lead to negative physical health outcomes.
Both studies examined the physical health of gay men who con-
cealed their sexual identity and found that these men were signif-
icantly more susceptible to infectious diseases and impaired im-
munological functioning than were those who did not conceal their
gay identity (Cole, Kemeny, Taylor, & Visscher, 1996; Ullrich,
Lutgendorf, & Stapleton, 2003). Although comparable data do not
exist for individuals with other concealable stigmas, these studies
offer evidence that concealing a core aspect of oneself may be
associated with negative physical health consequences. More work
such as this would strengthen the claim that concealing a stigma
not only requires much mental work but can also take its toll on
Over 40 years ago, Goffman (1963) offered preliminary evi-
dence drawn from autobiographies and case studies that suggested
that concealing a stigma may be fraught with unique challenges.
Since that time, increasing empirical evidence has substantiated
Goffman’s observation. This article offers a framework from
which to examine that evidence and from which to consider the
routes by which individuals can overcome the difficulties inherent
in concealing a stigma.
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Received October 26, 2005
Revision received July 17, 2006
Accepted August 11, 2006 ?
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