Monday, December 10, 2012

Do we really care about internet privacy?

Why do people disclose so much personal information on Facebook?  Harvard Business School Professor Leslie John and her colleagues have conducted several fascinating experiments regarding internet privacy.   For instance, they developed a set of provocative questions regarding activities such as the use of drugs, viewing of pornography, etc. - creepy questions according to Professor John!   Then they examined whether the form in which they asked the questions might impact the extent to which people disclosed private behavior.  In one experiment, they established three conditions - all with the same questions - with data collected from respondents passing by a set of laptops set up on the Carnegie Mellon campus.   HBS Working Knowledge describes the three conditions as follows:

In some cases, they took an online survey titled "How BAD Are U???" - deliberately designed to look unprofessional, it featured red font and a pixelated cartoon devil.  Other participants received a deliberately professional-looking survey titled "Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors," which sported the school's official crest. A third set, the control group, received the relatively neutral "Survey of Student Behaviors." 

What did the scholars find?   Students taking the purposely unprofessional-looking survey tended to admit to many more of these private behaviors than the students in the control group or the professional condition.  It seems odd, in a way, because you would think folks would be more hesitant and concerned about privacy on a site with a very unprofessional appearance.  Instead, it makes them less inhibited!   According to John, "When you're on a very official-looking site, it sort of cues you in to think about the concept of privacy.  We argue that oftentimes, privacy isn't something that's at the forefront of people's minds until you cue it." In fact, further experiments showed that privacy cues embedded in the surveys tended to make people more hesitant to disclose certain private behaviors. 


Lynda St. Clair said...

I wonder if rather than being a cue that leads people to keep more information private, the official sites tend to bring out more "social desirability" bias. Or perhaps there is a "social conformity" bias that operates in both instances. "How bad are U????" seems to imply that it is okay to be "bad" whereas "ethical behavior" suggests that being "bad" is not a good thing.

Michael Roberto said...

Great point, my friend. Hope all is well.