Optimism Bias and the “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” Response
The media routinely runs stories suggesting that information over sharing stems from the belief that people “have nothing to hide.” Last Friday, a New York Times story featured Mark Brooks, a 38-year-old consultant for online dating websites. Mr. Brooks explained that he publishes his travel schedule on Dopplr. His DNA profile is available on 23andMe. On Blippy, he makes public everything that he spends on his Chase credit card as well as his spending at Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon.com. The story featured Mr. Brooks as supporting thinking that people are becoming more relaxed about privacy, “having come to recognize that little pieces of information about themselves can result in serendipitous conversations — and little jolts of ego gratification.”
The assumption that people generally have relaxed concerns for privacy is contested (see Chris Hoofnagle’s and Joseph Turow’s study covered in the New York Times as well as Hoofnagle’s recent comments to the FTC). No matter, for those like Mr. Brooks who explicitly endorse this view the question is why? An important theory is that people don’t realize the costs of living transparently. Dan Solove argues that it may seem innocuous to share your purchases and travel plans with others but when your digital dossier is assembled, it may be taken out of context and held against you in ways that you often cannot prevent.
But why do sophisticated people like Mr. Brooks over share personal information when it seems clear that they do appreciate the risks? Part of it may be optimism bias. As behavioral economists like Dan Ariely have shown, people routinely underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to them. This is true even for professionals specifically trained to detect and avoid specific problems. It may be that people in theory understand that information disclosure can be costly but that in practice they fall prey to the notion that problems happen to others, not to them. People may over share because they assume that everyone will see their information as they do — i.e., in the best possible light. And so the question is whether policymakers should nudge people in the direction of less sunlight.