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Secrets, lies and communication theory

Professor uses “Pretty Little Liars” to showcase how people reveal, keep secrets


​In a complicated web of friendship and secrets, the television show "Pretty Little Liars" reveals its own mysteries about communication theory, according to Central Michigan University professor Alysa Lucas.

"'Pretty Little Liars' is a compelling example of Sandra Petronio's Communication Privacy Management theory," said Lucas, an assistant professor in the Communication and Dramatic Arts department. "The theory relates to the idea that we have invisible boundaries around personal information or private information and examines the process of determining if we should reveal to or conceal information to others."

Lucas researches interpersonal and relational communication with a specific focus on problematic communication in friendships. Last year, her theoretical perspectives tying friendship and privacy to "Pretty Little Liars" was published as a chapter in the book "Communication Theory and Millennial Popular Culture: Essays and Applications."

Lucas said she often references television shows in her communications courses because the ideas can be abstract or hard to understand.

"By using 'Pretty Little Liars' as a pop culture reference, it shows students that we use theory and reference it in everyday life all the time," Lucas said. "The pop culture references make the theory more tangible, more relatable and more real for the students in my classes."

Can you keep a secret?

When you tell a person a secret, that person becomes a co-owner of that information, Lucas said. In the first season of the television series, the characters reveal many secrets to one young woman in particular: Alison.

"When others become co-owners, rules are then negotiated as a way to clarify how, when and with whom the information will be revealed," Lucas said. "The character Alison dictates the group's privacy rules and ensures her friends are on board by threatening to share their individual secrets. And, although revealing some private information to Alison may have been about becoming closer friends, her knowledge of the others' information is dangerous and threatening because she can use it against them."

Other factors come into play when the information is a shared secret, Lucas said. Together the group of friends must figure out whom they can trust outside of the group with information. Lucas says that the more people who know the information, the more work you have to put into keeping a secret.

"It's a very complex negotiation of information where the characters have to follow rules, manage conflict, tension and betrayal when people break the rules around the information," Lucas said.

In its final season, which begins to air April 18 on Freeform, the secret villain will be revealed on "Pretty Little Liars." Lucas said this may change the dynamics of the characters' relationships and impact viewers' perception of the secrets shared throughout the show.


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