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.

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3 Responses

  1. Sr. Hedwyg says:

    Regarding the “nothing to hide” argument, I believe Cory Doctorow nailed this on the head in his novel “Little Brother.” The main character describes things that people keep private, as different than secret. He uses the example of using the bathroom: if we were only allowed to use a restroom that was completely glass-enclosed, out in downtown in front of everybody, we’d hold it until we burst. It’s not that it’s a secret that everybody has to go to the bathroom, or that it’s shameful, but it’s private. So while I may have “nothing to hide” about my bathroom habits, this is something I choose to keep private.

    I’ve been developing a theory about community and privacy. When I remain completely isolated from any other person, my privacy is perfectly secure. When I choose to be in community with one other person, I relinquish some amount of privacy. When I choose to be in additional communities (e.g., my school, my workplace, my place of worship, my family), I relinquish some amount of privacy to each one. A person who is part of multiple communities with me will know more of this private information than a person who is only one of the communities.

    I’m thinking about the relationship between the size of a community and the amount of privacy relinquished to it, and I think it’s an inverse relationship. As the size of a community approaches infinity, the amount of privacy relinquished approaches some lower limit… or maybe it should in theory, but in practice it doesn’t(?). For instance, in the (me + my best friend) community, I share a whole lot of information. But in the community of all US citizens, I share much less.

    In relation to the optimism bias, perhaps we underestimate the size of these communities. I know that our brains have a hard time dealing with large numbers. We think that only our closest friends can see what we share on Facebook, without thinking about the 400 million other users who can see some or all of this information.

  2. Joe says:

    I don’t cling to the right to privacy like I have heard some people do before, but Mr. Brooks makes me think a little differently about it. It becomes more difficult to just be alone with your own thoughts when you live in a world where everyone can see your DNA profile and travel plans.