Why We Blab Our Intimate Secrets on Facebook
The researchers also showed that people are likely to share information online if a personal question comes at them in a roundabout way. In another experiment, they teamed up with New York Times science columnist John Tierney, who posted a survey called "Test Your Ethics" on his official blog. Some 890 readers completed the survey, unaware that they were part of a research project. Upon clicking a link, all participants were presented with a list of 16 arguably unethical behaviors. For each one, they rated the behavior on a scale of "not at all unethical" to "extremely unethical" and answered questions about whether they themselves had ever engaged in that behavior.
However, the nature of the inquiry varied from participant to participant. In some cases the question was point blank: "Have you done this behavior?" But in others, the question was indirect: Participants had the choice of answering "If you have ever done this behavior, how unethical do you think it was?" or "If you have never done this behavior, how unethical do you think it would be, if you were to choose to do it?" Unfailingly, the researchers found that participants were far more likely to admit to a behavior when the question was posed indirectly.
Simply changing the order of the survey questions also had a direct effect on information disclosure. If shocked at the start, respondents would let their guard. The researchers found that participants were more likely to divulge personal information if the questions were presented in decreasing order of intrusiveness—starting with "Have you had sex with the current husband, wife, or partner of a friend?" and ending with the relatively tame "In the last year, have you eaten meat, poultry, or fish?"
Participants also were more likely to admit to unethical behavior if they were told that other participants had reported misdeeds, too. That herd mentality helps explain the propensity to air dirty laundry on Facebook, John explains. In fact, with so many Facebook members oversharing, it's gotten to the point that people get suspicious when their peers don't overshare.
In a recent experiment, John and HBS Associate Professor Michael I. Norton asked several college students to fill out a brief questionnaire, choosing to answer a personal question about either a desirable behavior (such as charity work) or an undesirable behavior (such as cheating). The students could respond to only one of the questions, with the understanding that another group of participants would be rating the answers on a scale of trustworthiness.
Many respondents chose to answer the question about positive behavior, assuming that this would show them in the most trustworthy light. But in fact, the group rating the answers tended to give higher trustworthiness scores to the students who chose to reveal unsavory behavior instead. "People tend to assume the worst about those who choose not to divulge," John says.
The broad implications
So why aren't most of us more logical and judicious in our approach to Internet privacy? "Broadly, the lesson of this research is that people don't really know how to value their own information," John says. "Because of this uncertainty about what the value of privacy is, people don't know when to value their information or how to care about it. And as a consequence, when people are uncertain, their judgments are often influenced by seemingly arbitrary contextual factors."
The research should prove useful to marketing firms, which often use online quizzes and games to garner detailed demographic information. But the findings also highlight a catch-22 situation for conscientious companies. While these firms want to ensure customer privacy for legal and ethical reasons, the mere act of ensuring privacy seems to suppress information disclosure.
What's the solution? "Perhaps the happy medium for marketers is to protect people's privacy, but don't explicitly tell them you're doing that," John says. "That may be a slippery slope. It may lead to the temptation just not to bother protecting people's privacy. But I would hope that the virtuous marketer would resist that temptation."
To read more: For detailed accounts of research by Leslie John, Alessandro Acquisti, and George Loewenstein, see "The Impact of Relative Standards on the Propensity to Disclose ," in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, and "Strangers on a Plane: Context-Dependent Willingness to Divulge Sensitive Information ," in the February 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research
[This article has been reproduced with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, the online research journal of University of Harvard Business School http://hbswk.hbs.edu/.]