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How Can We Learn to Shut Up?

Oversharing personal information can reward the brain like a hit of your favorite narcotic—and be just as hard to quit

In 2008, the late multimillionaire and creator of Maxim magazine, Felix Dennis, told a reporter from The Times of London that he had once killed a man by pushing him off a cliff in Connecticut. Committing the murder, “Weren’t ’ard,” the Brit boasted in his West London growl. The following day, however, Dennis called the paper to try to retract the claim, blaming his supposed fabrication on four bottles of wine and an April Fool’s prank. Despite his best efforts, the quotes went to press and speculation over the incident hovered over him until his death in 2014.

True or not, the publishing tycoon’s Scorsese-esque anecdote offers an extreme example of the kind of next-day regret most of us have found ourselves confronting at one time or another. Why, despite at least some level of awareness that nobody wanted to hear about your weird medical condition/bizarre sexual injury/preferred method of trimming your toenails, do you choose to mention it anyway? And why, like an oil tanker heading for a glacier, is it so hard to change conversational course once you’ve started oversharing?

“Sharing information is a way of letting people into our world,” says psychologist Funke Baffour. “The urge to share personal information makes us feel connected with that person.” Divulging private details is a fundamental aspect of our social natures — but when that urge is overindulged, she says, “It’s a little like taking drugs: Some people know they shouldn’t do it, but they do it anyway only to feel regret later.”

In fact, the response that oversharing triggers in our brains is almost exactly like a narcotic. According to a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, human beings devote between 30 and 40 percent of their speech solely to “one’s private experiences or personal relationships.” When investigating why, the researchers measured dopamine activity — one of the brain’s main feel-good reward chemicals — in people as they shared intimate information with others. They concluded that humans “so willingly self-disclose because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value, in the same way as with primary rewards such as food and sex.”

But if TMI is habit-forming, how easy is it to wean yourself off it?

“Recognize your signs and the times that you tend to overshare,” advises Baffour. “Is it when you’re intoxicated? Is it when you feel insecure, and you find that by over talking you’re gaining confidence?” If the latter is the case, she recommends finding someone to talk to who is not necessarily strongly connected to you, but whose presence creates a safe space to offload personal stuff. (Ever found yourself telling your life story to a cab driver you’ll never see again? Not such a bad idea, it turns out.)

There might be another reason for your frequent episodes of verbal diarrhea, though. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people were more than twice as likely to email an online article to a friend after they’d been jogging in place for 60 seconds. “When we’ve just exercised, when we’re on a plane ride that’s a little bit rocky, when we walk out of a movie that’s really scary, these emotions that we feel activate us,” Berger explained in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. “This activation drives us to share things, even if we don’t mean to share them. It leads to a lot of oversharing.” All of which may explain why pillow talk — as exploited by seductive spies — is such a classic arena for spilling our guts.

“The key is that [oversharing] is a sign of insecurity,” says Baffour. “When people feel insecure they feel vulnerable, and they try to find ways to match up to the social setting that they’re in.” This is why inappropriate confessions seem to happen most often when we’re trying to make a good impression — in meetings with the boss, when talking to people we’re attracted to or even during boozy interviews with journalists from the Times.

If you’re prone to over sharing, says Baffour, you’ll probably notice a little thought popping into your head every now and again: “‘Um, should I say that?’ Just look out for those signs when you’re kind of unsure whether you should say the next thing,” she says, following with the most important advice of all: “Then just stop. Don’t say it.”

Sound advice, especially if you’re a murderer.