At the heart of such paradoxes is the fact that humans have conflicting motives when making decisions. They have a sincere desire for privacy, which establishes boundaries that are important to them in various ways. But they also know that disclosure of personal information can make other people like them more, because it is a key part of forging relationships.
Other researchers have demonstrated this aspect of human nature. Pairs of strangers were given lists of questions to ask each other, in order to see how much the answers affected their opinions of each other. This found that the more their answers disclosed personal information, the more the other person liked them.
In another experiment, people were asked who they would choose if one applicant said on a job application form that the worst grade they had ever achieved in an exam was a fail and another chose the ‘no answer’ option. The result was that 89 per cent preferred the former – they recognised that the candidate who came clean was the worse candidate but thought them more trustworthy, and were suspicious of people who withhold information.
There is a similar reverse process: the more that people like a website or questionnaire because it appears fun, the more willing people are to disclose information about themselves and set aside privacy considerations.
“Facebook heightens the desire to divulge in a variety of ways that make you want to share,” she says. “The more people see others sharing a lot, the more they are prepared to divulge about themselves. Meanwhile the website’s privacy settings are constantly changed and typically buried under several layers of menus, making it hard for users to review them.”
“Another factor that encourages disclosure is that there are often immediate and tangible benefits. As soon as you post on Facebook, you get feedback such as “likes” and comments, which psychology tells us is a form of conditioning that will encourage you to share more.”
“The dangers of sharing online are much vaguer. If compromising pictures are shared, future employers might see them some time in the future, but you don’t know who those employers are, or whether they’ll find them, or what the consequences will be. There is no clear link between your indiscretion and any bad outcome.”
Social media companies have strong motives to get as much information out of customers without alarming them, Professor John adds. It brings in more traffic, and more personal information – both of which can help in attracting advertising.