Beware online confessions

27th August, 2011

Why do we reveal so much about ourselves on the web, especially since we also claim to be worried about privacy?

In the fledgling days of Facebook, when it had just a few thousand users and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was a student, he boasted to a friend over an instant message service about all the personal information he’d acquired.

“what!? how’d you manage that one?” was the response.

In reply, Zuckerberg typed: “people just submitted it / i don’t know why / they “trust me” / dumb f[****]”. (It is ironic that a private conversation about privacy was leaked, to the Silicon Alley Insider website.)

In fairness to Facebook, these are different times and it is a different organisation. And yet the question Mr Zuckerberg’s friend asked remains fascinating. Why do we reveal so much about ourselves online, especially since we also claim to be worried about privacy?

Three behavioural researchers, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and Alessandro Acquisti and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, have been trying to figure out the answer.

John and her colleagues wanted to explore the kind of contextual cues that persuade us to bare our souls. In a series of experiments, they used online surveys to ask intrusive questions, exploring what sort of cues might provoke revealing answers.

In a survey posted on a New York Times blog, billed as “Test Your Ethics”, almost a thousand respondents answered questions about whether they had cheated on their taxes, omitted to tell a partner about a sexually transmitted disease, or filed a false insurance claim. For some participants, the questions were asked directly – “have you ever done this?” with a yes/no answer. A follow-up question then asked them to rate the morality of the practice. But for other participants, the questions were indirect: asking people “if you have EVER done this behaviour, how unethical do you think it was” and similarly, “if you have NEVER done this behaviour….” The questions demand the same information, but more people admitted to the dubious behaviour when the questions were asked indirectly. Intriguingly, 88 per cent of respondents also supplied their email address.

Later experiments tested the kind of web design that would provoke candour. Students were invited to answer questions on a laptop, with different students being exposed to identical questions underneath three different headers. One looked very official, with the Carnegie Mellon crest on the top, entitled “Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors”. Another was neutral. The third asked, “How BAD are U?”, with a perky red font and a logo showing a little devil.

Objectively, it would not seem very smart to divulge information to the little devil site. “There is a wealth of research showing it is more dangerous to divulge on these websites,” says Ms John. Yet that is what happened. “I find the result quite alarming,” she told me.”

There are two obvious alternative interpretations of the results. One is that students, who were from CMU, didn’t care to confess their sins to an official-looking site. (HM Revenue and Customs may be trustworthy, but they are the last people I’d tell if I was cheating on my tax return.) Yet the neutral website drew similar results to the official-looking one, which suggests that the results were not down to a fear of punishment. Nor is there any indication that the little devil website encouraged students to think it was cool to have unprotected sex or take drugs (the researchers checked this). Instead, it somehow persuaded them to banish privacy concerns from their minds.

Online, there are many more influences guiding our disclosure than the simple appearance of a site. But this research is an important reminder that we are easily nudged into revealing more than, on careful reflection, we might wish to.

Also published at

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