May 1, 2009 at 8:00 AM ET
Would you share the most intimate details of your life with a stranger, such as cheating on your taxes or sleeping with a friend's spouse? You'd be more likely to tell if you thought everyone else was doing it, say a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
The results of their study could help explain the slow but steady march toward "anything goes" behavior on social networking sites like Facebook, where users are notorious for revealing too much information about themselves.
Msnbc.com has obtained a copy of the report, which is to be released next month. In it, the researchers worried about what they called a "frog effect” on the public. Like a frog that doesn't notice it's in danger when sitting in water that slowly comes to a boil, consumers are not noticing that personal privacy standards are slowly eroding.
A befuddling conflict
The group of behavioral scientists were looking for answers to a vexing question that dogs nearly every privacy-related research project: People routinely say they care deeply about privacy, then consistently act otherwise.
In the study, the group asked nearly 2,000 adults a series of sensitive, "self-revelatory" questions. They ranged from tame (Have you ever left a room with the light on?) to the dramatic (Have you ever had sex with the current partner of a friend?). After each question, the researchers showed the test-takers fake results offering up alleged answers from other test takers. Some of the fake results showed the majority admitted to a variety of these unethical behaviors; others showed that most test-takers had denied taking part in the behaviors, or refused to answer the questions.
Those who thought their fellow test-takers were admitting to a string of bad behaviors were 27 percent more likely to reveal intimate details of their lives, even after the researchers asked for their private e-mail address.
"We call this effect 'herding.' When people observe more disclosure, they become more likely to disclosure similarly sensitive information," said privacy and economics researcher Alessandro Acquisti, one of the authors of the study. "As we see more people revealing sensitive information, we also become more likely to do it."
Subtle scramble of questions
The study did not track straight-line confessions – such as, consumers who saw other people admit to relationship cheating were more likely to confess cheating themselves. Instead, the questions were scrambled to examine a more subtle point: People who thought others were confessing to anything were compelled share confessions about themselves.
"So if I see people admitting cheating on their wives, then I am more likely to admit cheating on my taxes," Acquisti said.
There was a group of test-takers who didn't fall for the "manipulation," Acquisti said -- a group sometimes called "privacy-centric." Consumers who refused to give their e-mail address during the test showed no variance in their likelihood to confess.
It was a small group, however -- 87 percent of test-takers willingly surrendered their e-mail. The information was then scrambled to protect the privacy of the test takers.
The power of "herding" on privacy standards could have a compounding effect on consumers, Acquisti said. Consumers who are nudged towards self-revelation by others will keep pushing the standards further and further away from privacy.
"It's a one-way problem," he said. "The study implies that we are going a direction from which we cannot make a U-turn. More revelations push us to more revelations push us to more revelations. It's more and more common for everybody to put life out there in public."
Larry Ponemon, who runs privacy research firm The Ponemon Institute, said he thought the study results were consistent with other research he’s seen indicating that people seem to have a primal need to share details about their lives.
The 'torment' of secrets
“There is a torment in keeping secrets,” he said. “People have a willingness to share in an environment like a social network. They are motivated to share because there is a psychological release … people really don’t want to keep secrets.”
Social networking sites are benefitting from this desire to share, he said. But he agreed with the Carnegie Mellon researchers that normal boundaries for selectively sharing information within predefined groups are slowly eroding.
“There are thresholds for sharing information, but they seem to be going away,” he said.
In a second, related study, the Carnegie Mellon researchers tested two opposing theories about seducing reluctant test-takers to share details of their lives and came up with a surprising result. One group was asked progressively more sensitive questions, under the theory that consumers could slowly be led down a path towards more revelation – a technique sometimes called the “foot in the door” strategy. But it didn’t work as well as the opposite tactic: Asking the most invasive question first, then asking the easier questions. Test-takers confronted abruptly like that – using what’s called the “door in the face” strategy – shared more. That seems to suggest consumers are less unnerved by medium-range invasive questions when they subconsciously compare them to an initial abrupt question, like “Have you ever fantasized about sex with a minor?”
A favorite technique at car lots
This technique should be familiar to anyone who’s ever purchased a new car. Dealerships routinely make “highball” offers initially, in an attempt to slide a buyer’s potential price range higher. For example, if a dealer initially offered to sell a car for $25,000, then drops the price to $23,000, the buyer will feel like he or she got a better price than if the dealer offered $23,000 on the first pass.
In sales, the technique is often called “anchoring.” A seller who can get a buyer to reposition their subconscious anchor higher will usually get a higher price.
The same principles apply in privacy decisions, Acquisti said. However, because privacy transactions are hard to quantify, it’s hard to know what you’re “paying” when you reveal too much about yourself on Facebook. And it’s hard to know where the downward spiral away from privacy might stop.
“I do feel that as a society our trajectory is going pretty clearly towards more and more information revelation, which seems to create and fewer constraints for privacy,” he said. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said. Privacy is naturally a social standard, and each generation and social group can define its own standard. But the end of all such standards is a disturbing possibility, he added.
“Our ability to selectively disclose information about ourselves to different groups of people is part of what makes us human,” he said.
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