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.