We're being watched, through thousands of digital peepholes, by everyone from the feds to Facebook to hucksters and hackers of every stripe. Most of us tell pollsters we’re concerned about the government, companies, and criminals accessing our information—even as we eagerly disclose our intimate secrets all over the Internet. A research team led by Patricia Norberg, a Quinnipiac University associate professor of marketing, dubbed this quirk “the privacy paradox” in a seminal 2007 study of online consumer behavior.
Our values and behavior are scrambling to keep up with this new era of surveillance—and with each other. We hardly know our own mind, but the snoopers probably do. Here are five studies to help level the playing field. Know thyself.
More privacy controls mean less privacy
After Facebook launched News Feed in 2006—that constant scroll of everything your “friends” are up to—the outcry was shrill. Mark Zuckerberg himself apologized, and the company debuted a bunch of new privacy controls in 2009, allowing Facebookers to set different tiers of access for every piece of their profiles. Ironically, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, all those new privacy options actually reversed a years-long trend in which users had been increasingly walling off their profiles and sharing less information. A follow-up study by a different group of CMU researchers, led by behavioral scientist Laura Brandimarte, confirmed that more privacy controls led to less privacy and spurred people to share much more about sensitive subjects, including their sex lives, and whether they’d cheated on a test, done drugs, or shoplifted.
—“Misplaced Confidences: Privacy and the Control Paradox,” Social Psychology and Personality Science, vol. 4, no. 3, by Laura Brandimarte et al, 2013
Self-censorship is best encouraged subtly
Recently, researchers from Syracuse, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pittsburgh tested three privacy “nudges” on volunteer Facebook users—a “picture nudge” that gave visual cues about who would see a post, a “timer nudge” that introduced a 10-second delay during which you could change your mind after clicking “post,” and a “sentiment nudge” that scanned posts for negative or obscene language. By tracking Facebook behaviors before and after nudge installation, including follow-up surveys and a typing history that recorded edited or deleted posts, the researchers found that visual audience cues and the time delay were effective and for the most part welcome. But users found the sentiment feedback annoying—and sometimes it even backfired. “Apparently, if I cuss on Facebook I now get a warning that some people may find my post negative,” wrote one user. “As if I give a fuck.”
—"Privacy Nudges for Social Media: An Exploratory Facebook Study," Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference on World Wide Web Companion, by Yang Wang et al, 2013
Oversharers are the most judgmental about oversharers
Just about everyone has sent an ill-advised tweet or posted an overly revealing Instagram picture. You’d think that would make us more forgiving of TMI transgressions by others. Not so, according to a not-yet-published study by Carnegie Mellon technology-privacy guru Alessandro Acquisti and two collaborators. The trio surveyed hundreds of people about the personal stuff they’d posted online. A few weeks later, they recruited about a third of the original group for what was ostensibly a separate study. The participants evaluated a hypothetical job candidate who was perfectly qualified, but who had shared drunken photos of herself online. People who had admitted posting drunken party pics of themselves in the first survey were much less likely to hire a job candidate who had made the same mistake. One possible explanation might be what Acquisti calls “moral dissonance.” When we see someone else doing something we regret doing ourselves, he says, “we punish others for our own sins.”
—Ongoing research by Alessandro Acquisti and Laura Brandimarte, Carnegie Mellon University, and Francesca Gino, Harvard University
Being watched might make you more honest
Jeffrey Hancock, a Cornell professor of communications and information science, says we tend to be more truthful online because we know what we say can be found later by just about anyone. When Hancock and collaborators asked study subjects to keep a weeklong log of their lies, they found that people lied most frequently over the phone, followed by face-to-face, and the least over email. In a yet-to-be-published follow-up, they found that subjects’ online behaviors were more honest when the Web pages they visited featured an image of watching eyes.
—“Deception and Design: The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, by Jeffrey Hancock et al, 2004
And it's good for business
It makes sense that surveilling employees would lead them to break fewer rules—but who knew it could also be good for sales? A recent working paper by researchers led by Lamar Pierce, a Washington University business school professor, analyzed sales from nearly 400 restaurants for two years after they installed electronic systems to detect employee theft. Theft didn’t drop by much—an average of about $24 a week. But weekly revenues jumped up by nearly $3,000, and tips increased, too. The researchers speculated this was because of changed staff behavior: Knowing they were being monitored, waiters shifted their energy from thieving into better customer service and encouraging diners to order an extra drink or dessert, in the hopes of boosting their tips.
—“Cleaning House: The Impact of Information Technology Monitoring on Employee Theft and Productivity,” by Lamar Pierce, Daniel Snow, and Andrew McAfee. August 24, 2013
Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior